All of us were left traumatized by the rampage shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford last Saturday, which left 13 others in the line of fire injured and six dead, including a 9 year old born on September 11, 2001. Although President Barack Obama was credited with a moving bi-partisan speech at the Arizona memorial last week, the political repercussions of the event continue, with Democrats blaming Republicans for inflammatory language and Republicans blaming Democrats for exploiting the situation to leverage their own sagging political fortunes. Nevertheless, to lay the cause of the tragedy at the door of any single partisan cause — whether Sarah Palin, lax gun laws or too liberal democratic legislation — is entirely to miss the point. This latest crisis is symptomatic of a deeper problem in America, with more potential repercussions than those of any single cataclysmic event. The problem has to do with the very nature of how we have defined ourselves and our persistent need to categorize the elements of our world as some version of ‘us’ vs ‘them.’ Increasing divides It has particularly broken my heart because although I have lived in Britain for 25 years, I am – and always will be – an American. Over all this time and from this transatlantic perspective, I have observed my country increasingly polarize — black against white, Christian against Muslim and now Democrat against Republican. And this largely stems from the same source — a tendency to insist on sameness — ‘people like me’ — in our lives.
In December 1989 Laura Chasin, a family therapist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was watching a rancorous debate on abortion between pro-choice and pro-life representatives. The argument reminded her of some of the same kind of behavior patterns she regularly dealt with in her practice with dysfunctional families. She wondered if some of the techniques that proved effective in therapy could also be applied to people whose political or social views were polarized. Chasin created the Public Conversation Project by enlisting women friends and acquaintances on both sides of the abortion issue to deepen their understanding of each other by changing the way they communicate. She began holding meetings over buffet dinners, where the women could get to know each other before they disclosed on which side of the fence they stood. Dialogue on differences In subsequent meetings the women sat in a circle and took turns in a dialogue, revealing their personal stories about abortion, the events in their lives that helped to shape their beliefs, the aspects of the issue they still wrestled with. In total Chasin hosted eighteen sessions with more than a hundred different women. Then, on December 30, 1994, when the pro-life advocate John Salvi shot dead two and wounded five others at the Brookline, Massachusetts, Planned Parenthood and nearby Preterm Health Services, six leading figures from the state’s pro-life and pro-choice movements, including the director of the Pro-life Office of the Archdiocese of Boston and Nicki Nichols Gamble, the director of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, decided that it was vital that the two sides continue the dialogue. The six women carried on meeting in secret for nearly six years. Over time they learned to stop using inflammatory language such as “murder” and learned to “speak in love, speak in respect, and speak in peace,” no matter how wide their differences. Both sides joined forces to announce that the head of ProLife Virginia, who reportedly had sanctioned Salvi’s action as a “righteous deed,” was not welcome in Massachusetts. At a service to honor the memory of the two who had been killed in the Salvi shootings, Gamble expressed gratitude for the “prayers of those who agree with us and the prayers of those who disagree.” After the shootings, each group watched the other group’s back; the pro-life leaders, for instance, created a hotline system to alert the pro-choice leaders of the possibility of violence or physical danger. Love across the table At the end of the six years the group held a press conference, at which members of the press wanted to know who had “won” the debate. Each of the six announced that the process of the dialogue had helped them to become firmer in their own views about abortion. “So, it was a failure then?” asked a reporter. “Oh, no,” replied one of the women. Although they had struggled with profound philosophical differences over the years, they had found the essential connection between them and discovered how to treat each other with dignity and respect. Now, you see, we party together. We watch each other’s children. We love each other. The Cambridge women learned to seek areas of agreement and developed creative ways in which to work together to offer sex education to teenagers, greater help for pregnant teenagers, and improved adoption programs. However, the most important aspect of the dialogue was finding the common ground that is always there, even when worldviews collide. By opening ourselves to our truest nature, which always seeks wholeness, we allow the possibility of pure and immediate resonance with the other within the space of our common humanity. Noticing the whole When you notice the whole, you allow for and respect more than one version of reality. You find ways to work together for a larger goal — something bigger and more important than partisan politics. The most important political act that you can undertake today is to hug a member of the opposite political party. It will serve to remind you, and everyone around you, that we are, after all, all in this together.