Disagree, but engage: That's civility

On issues ranging from abortion to guns, it is possible for adversaries to find common ground

February 10, 2011|By Robert Fersh and Andrew L. Yarrow

President Barack Obama's speech in Tucson last month and others' eloquent calls for civility since have been heartening. It seems de rigueur these days to call for "bipartisanship." However, good intentions and individual commitments to behave better can — like New Year's resolutions — fade quickly. We need to employ proven approaches that foster sustained civility and actually bring results on key national issues. And not only elected leaders must make this commitment.

Take gun violence. Attention is focused primarily on gun control, with issues of deep principle on both sides that cannot neatly be resolved. Yet, people from across the spectrum could be working on mental health detection and treatment, mentoring programs and public education campaigns (think Mothers Against Drunk Driving), as well as taking other means to create a different culture concerning violence. Rather than fight over gun control, why not look for areas of broad common ground? No one wants innocent people shot dead. Everyone wants more effective detection and restraint of mentally unstable people who are prone to violence. And we need to take a hard look at ceaseless digital and media depictions of violence.

Those who favor gun rights are as appalled by murderous rampages as are gun control advocates. The National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers have much to gain if we could stop horrible mass shootings such as those in Tucson or at Virginia Tech. If the ultimate goal of gun-control advocates is to reduce injury and death, they also have everything to gain from putting energy into efforts that go beyond gun-control laws without compromising their core concern. Powerful social progress can come when strange bedfellows find a common interest and work together.

There is ample precedent for such work. In the 1990s, Search for Common Ground organized the Network for Life and Choice at a time of deep division over abortion. There had been killings at abortion clinics. It was understood there would be no agreement on the fundamental issue of abortion. Yet, people with sharply differing views found they could work together on teenage pregnancy prevention, foster care and adoption. In the process, temperatures cooled. People understood that their "adversaries" could be people of decency and compassion whose life experiences led them to honest disagreement on this highly charged issue.

Fortunately, this nation has individuals and organizations able to help bridge divides and find broadly supportable solutions on a wide range of issues. We need to put our energies into processes that can break down misconceptions, create new understanding and find agreement among those with conflicting views. At their best, such efforts identify practical yet far-reaching solutions and inspire unlikely alliances for action. And they can create a culture of cooperation over time.

These processes are most successful when participants have strong, informed opinions and can make a difference if they reach agreement. This was the case in the U.S.-Muslim Engagement Project, where 34 diverse American leaders joined in an influential consensus report in 2008 to show a way forward for the United States in its relations with Muslim majority countries. The group included a former Clinton administration secretary of state, former Republican members of Congress, high-ranking former officials of the George W. Bush administration, 11 Muslim-American leaders, a former director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, clergy of differing faiths, and others. Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota, said: "This report provides clear-headed ideas and analysis that the American public and bipartisan leaders can get behind in working to improve U.S.-Muslim relations. The process by which the group reached consensus is a good model for dialogue for the tough issues our country faces."

Thoughtful, knowledgeable people can disagree — and often do. But people with different points of view generally all have something to contribute to workable solutions. This is not to say that all views have equal merit; they do not. But it does point to the possibility that better solutions will emerge from the creative tension of people who disagree but are willing to engage. For civility to really break out in America, people must first be willing to talk to one another.

Robert Fersh is president of Convergence, a Washington-based organization that works for broadly supportable solutions to issues of national consequence. He was co-director of the U.S.-Muslim Engagement Project. He has worked on national policy issues in government and nonprofits for more than 30 years. His e-mail is rfersh@cnvg.org. Andrew L. Yarrow, a Washington public-policy professional, modern U.S. historian and longtime journalist, is the author of the new book, "Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late 20th Century." His e-mail is andrewyarrowcolumns@gmail.com.

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