Staying Connected in the Midst of Differences

Posted by on November 15, 2017 at 11:41 AM

By Parisa Parsa, Executive Director, Essential Partners

In 1989, a group of therapists engaged in some commiseration at their shared Cambridge practice. They discussed a concern about what had become of sane discourse about weighty issues of policy in the United States. At that time one of the therapists, Laura Chasin was a doctoral student of government with a special interest in the philosophy of John Dewey, who in the late 1800’s expressed his profound belief in expressing how democracy and ethical ideals of humanity were synonymous.

In the office with the others, Laura shared how she was particularly distressed by the chaos and ineffectiveness of public debates about abortion. Her colleagues Corky Becker, Dick Chasin and Sallyann Roth, along with researcher and editor Maggie Herzig, puzzled at how much was lost in the public shouting matches that passed for debate. The mutual understanding, restoration of trust and sheer humanity that was the bedrock of effective family therapy were utterly absent from the publicly televised conversations about some of our most critical social and political issues. What was common however, were disjointed policies, stalemate and a devolution of the social fabric in communities around the country, just when our democracy needed solutions most.

From the confines of those pivotal hours of discourse, the question the group considered was, “Could the practices of family therapy be engaged to build relationship and understanding, and restore trust among folks who were deeply divided on issues that were rooted in their core values?” That question motivated years of research and the development of the practices at the core of the Public Conversations Project, now Essential Partners.

In the last 28 years, the United States has seen a continuing rift between what passes as public discourse and the practices that have been developed to be effective in building and sustaining personal, direct relationships. Today as much as anytime since, the same question that brought our founders together is a source of dismay, concern, alarm or despair for people across the political and social spectrum.

At least as far back as Plato, the notion of public discourse has been engaged and debated in philosophical treatises. Questioning the effectiveness and relevancy of open dialogue is part of democratic ideals. Within a democratic system, the common person is assumed to have the right to engage in discussion about the realm of truth and justice. In that regard, which topics warrant engagement, and what qualifications ought one have to properly engage? If we are to have a system of government in which each person has a vote, it is assumed then that we can express freely, differences in ideas, opinions, world views. The free exchange of ideas, the ability to argue, debate and dialogue has been central to the democratic experiment -- not just in forming public policy, but in considering what defines the common good.  

The spirit of public, civilized debate that operates according to competing arguments that proceed rationally until there is an objective winner, has become a charming anachronism, especially in our current political arena. Persuasive strength of one side’s logic often pushes into the shadows the ideals of democratic discourse and goals. In the lead up to the 2016 election, there was much hand-wringing about the lack of reasoned argument and loose treatment of facts in the formal debates. Even the moderators were subject to personal attack from candidates. And then it was open season on everyone -- candidates, moderators, audience members, on social media, on broadcast television and in public.

The issue we have today is not the lack of access to information - it is a lack of connection and trust. Added to our political polarization are alarming rates of afflictions borne of isolation and despair: rates of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed; addiction rates are escalating and, in the case of opioids, are now being declared epidemic; suicide rates increased by 24% from 1999-2014. Measured as cultural trends, these point to a deep need to relocate ourselves in relationship with caring others and with a sense of purpose and meaning that goes beyond the struggles within us. This can be accomplished through therapy, of course, but the practices of connection, relationship, trust and understanding need to be activated among us in community as well. After all, the wider definition of human community includes agreements despite conflicting perspectives. 

“Apart from conversation, from discourse and communication, there is no thought and no meaning, only just events, dumb, preposterous, destructive.”  These words of John Dewey in 1922 seem to capture well the malaise of our times. We live a frustrating paradox: the many vehicles at our fingertips for pumping out information have not resulted in an increase in communication. The real interchange of ideas beyond lobbing insults or competing “facts” at one another has been the true casualty of our times. The advent of social media simply provided an accelerant. 

While working on this article, in fact, I overheard another coffee shop patron discussing the news of the day with a companion: “I feel like I have so much to say and nowhere to say it,” he said, “I think I’ll open a Twitter account just to have somewhere to vent it all.” We are good at talking about those “dumb, preposterous, destructive” events, but lack the corresponding opportunities for the kind of discourse that makes meaning of those events and our relationship with them. It is only through conversation, that shared experience of knowing and being known, that we arrive at a sense of our purpose, and what comes next. 

At Essential Partners, we believe our times demand a refreshed public discourse. Our approach rests on the fact that behind every belief is a person with a story. Our practices help to build a web of relationships that assumes difference and can remain connected even through deep disagreement. When we have a foundation in the honoring of one another’s humanity, a relationship built on the trust that our neighbor or political opponent comes at their view honestly, we can hold our disagreements alongside the fact of the others’ fundamental dignity. And then our passionate, principled differences remain grounded in the fact that we are mutually interdependent. 

Conversation is the simple and profound act of sharing who we are with one another. It has been the primary mode of human connection for as long as humanity has existed. Connection between ideas and their implications in real lives. Connection between our pain and our joy: the recognition of the arc of human living that includes isolation, loss, despair and also exalted moments of the pleasure and privilege of being alive. Connection between our past, rife with wrongs done and wrongs done to us, and a future in which we demand and strive for better. The suffering of generations that is born anew with each tends to be given too short a story arc in our imaginations and in our societal awareness: our short memories are stunting not just our sense of history but our sense of compassion as well. Our ability to tell one another our stories - and tell them fully, truly, in all their complexity - is what builds a sense of the truth that honors the depth and breadth that those old philosophers may have been getting at.

In our current cultural moment, we hear constantly that people avoid or suppress the desire to be in this kind of conversation with folks who think or believe differently. The loss in this turning away, in this avoidance, is one that cannot be overstated. Because it confuses our political ideas with our humanity, and allows us to build destructive stereotypes of each other based on exaggerated differences. That practice, no matter how principled ones opposition is to the other side’s views, always leads to terrifying conclusions. The rampant conversation right now about whether one should entertain views that are “simply wrong and destructive” forgets that those views are held by people. We don’t get to cast fellow human beings to the wayside because their ideas are wrong to us, lest we too find ourselves on the wrong side of that equation. We can disagree with our opponents ideas and still hold a bedrock conviction in their humanity and their dignity. This has been the core outcome of our sustained dialogues among folks in leadership on different sides of the biggest divides. 

In our pluralistic society we can never expect to be without difference and even conflict. In the world of conflict resolution we know that the process of moving through conflict is not about tying things up in a neat little bow, but about building practices that help us transform conflict in ways that are generative. Rather than imagining conflict is something to be avoided, suppressed, or expelled, we believe we can build a kind of public discourse that opens up the creative possibility when conflicting ideas meet. We can always learn something about ourselves and one another and realize a new truth: our ability to stay connected in the midst of our differences. These practices are critical to sustaining a healthy culture. 

Ultimately, when people enter the public sphere with opinions and values informed by the deep, relational connection with others who believe differently, the whole quality of our public discourse can be transformed. Through this education and growth we can learn to embrace passionate views that sharply differ without dehumanizing our opponents. 

Almost 30 years after the meeting between the founders of Essential Partners, we have come to a critical point in our self-evaluation of democratic ideas. If our collective social values are dependent on communication and dialogue, then this new norm can truly allow difference to flourish, while sharpening our understanding of how our beliefs, ideas, policies and actions affect others. And through all this, we can rebuild our democracy.