rn> “Talking with the Enemy” – beyond left & right


Richard Moore

Delivered-To: •••@••.•••
Date: Wed, 31 Jan 2001 12:25:13 -0800
To: •••@••.••• (cii lo list)
From: Tom Atlee <•••@••.•••>
Subject: [cii-lo] "Talking with the Enemy" - a human systems perspective

Dear friends,

I am grateful to Nancy Seifer and Tree Bressen for alerting
me to this passionate, restrained, moving article about a
five-year dialogue between pro-life and pro-choice
activists.  I have known for some time about the work of the
Public Conversations Project, who sponsored these extended
dialogues.  But nothing I've read before has captured the
level of nuance that this article, written by the activists
themselves, revealed.  It is especially moving to me, having
recently witnessed similar conflicts that surfaced during
our Low-Income People's Wisdom Council here in Lane County,

I've given the URL for the article below, at the Boston
Globe's website. But I also suggest you view it through the
Public Conversations Project website portal at
<http://www.publicconversations.org/Pages/leaders.html>. The
project offers questions to contemplate and a chance to post
your responses to the article.  A remarkable collection of
passionate, moving responses have already been posted. 
(Both sites, incidentally, provide pictures of the dialogue
participantsm, all women.)

The work of the Public Conversations Project has long
inspired me to stretch my ideas about co-intelligence.  That
work makes me attend more closely to research that suggests
that living systems NEED diversity within them -- and
perhaps even real polarization -- if they are going to be
healthy and resilient.  I come to this conclusion
reluctantly, because I love to believe that people can come
together to find better answers that work for them all.  At
a very personal level, I am not comfortable with the idea
that polarized divisions are inevitable.

But I am coming to believe that things are not that simple. 
I am coming to believe that a human community or society is
-- when considered as a whole -- most healthy when
    a)  when it has people of extreme views in it,
    b)  when such extremists are tolerated and tapped for the
        intensely one-sided (but very real) insights they have to
        offer, and
    c)  when the majority of people are not extremists, but take
        the time to reflect productively on the issues raised by
        extremists -- with the help of broad-spectrum information,
        high-quality dialogue, and a strong sense of their common

Out of such collective reflection, the evolving consensus
and direction of the larger community can emerge in
ever-shifting, ever-more-nuanced waves. If things shift too
far out of balance in one direction, the opposite pole (of
the polarized extremes) gains strength at the same time,
pulling back towards the center.  There is a dance, each
polarized "side" serving to balance the dangers of the other
side on behalf of the system as a whole.

In a healthy system, this dance goes on and on, its
different moves helping the whole system adopt to changing
circumstances in and around it.  In a sick system, or a
system in crisis, "the center cannot hold" and the system
splits into opposing parts.  At that point there is either a
lot of destruction, or the parts go their separate ways
(with more or less respect or connection) and new diversity
is born.

There is much, much more involved in such dynamics, of
course.  But I have found the above insights extremely
useful in my own thinking, when I can clamber out of my own
entrenched opinions about life long enough to see the bigger

When I'm at my best, I think there are gifts and limitations
in the pro-choice position.  I think there are gifts and
limitations in pro-life position.  (I think there are gifts
and limitations in any position.)  If these women -- who are
so passionately in opposition to each other's beliefs -- can
deeply listen to each other and respect (dare we say love?)
each other, perhaps they can teach us deep enough lessons
about our common humanity that those of us who are not so
attached to a particular "side" can stand on the solid
ground they have given us, and begin to tease out the gifts
from both "sides" and weave creative social solutions and
perspectives that serve more of us better, more of the time.

I have a profound faith that we can do that -- and that we
can do that over and over -- with every issue.  I'm still
exploring the gifts and limitations of that faith.



_ _ _ _ _ _ _

From 1/28/01 'Boston Globe'

Talking with the Enemy

For six years, leaders on both sides of the abortion debate
have met in secret in an attempt to better understand each
other. Now they are ready to share what they have learned.

By Anne Fowler, Nicki Nichols Gamble, Frances X. Hogan, Melissa Kogut,
Madeline McComish, and Barbara Thorp

On the morning of Dec. 30, 1994, John Salvi walked into the
Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline and opened fire with
a rifle. He seriously wounded three people and killed the
receptionist, Shannon Lowney, as she spoke on the phone. He
then ran to his car and drove two miles down Beacon Street
to Preterm Health Services, where he began shooting again,
injuring two and killing receptionist Lee Ann Nichols.

Salvi's 20-minute rampage shocked the nation. Prochoice
advocates were grief-stricken, angry, and terrified. Prolife
proponents were appalled as well as concerned that their
cause would be connected with this horrifying act. Governor
William F. Weld and Cardinal Bernard Law, among others,
called for talks between prochoice and prolife leaders.

We are six leaders, three prochoice and three prolife, who
answered this call. For nearly 5 1/2 years, we have met
together privately for more than 150 hours - an experience
that has astonished us. Now, six years after the shootings
in Brookline, and on the 28th anniversary of the US Supreme
Court's landmark Roe v.Wade decision, we publicly disclose
our meetings for the first time.

How did the six of us, activists from two embattled camps,
ever find our way to the same table?

In the months following the shootings, the Public
Conversations Project, a Boston-based national group that
designs and conducts dialogues about divisive public issues,
consulted many community leaders about the value of
top-level talks about abortion.

Encouraged by these conversations, the project in July 1995
invited the six of us to meet together four times. The
meetings would be confidential and we would attend as
individuals, not as representatives of our organizations.

Our talks would not aim for common ground or compromise.
Instead, the goals of our conversations would be to
communicate openly with our opponents, away from the
polarizing spotlight of media coverage; to build
relationships of mutual respect and understanding; to help
deescalate the rhetoric of the abortion controversy; and, of
course, to reduce the risk of future shootings.

Still shaken by the murderous attacks in Brookline, we each
agreed to participate.

As we approached the first meeting, we all were

Before the meeting, the prolife participants prayed together
in a booth at a nearby Friendly's. Frances X. Hogan, a
lawyer and president of Women Affirming Life and executive
vice president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, worried
that a dialogue with prochoice leaders might generate ''a
scandal if people thought I was treating abortion merely as
a matter of opinion on which reasonable people could

Madeline McComish, a chemist and president of Massachusetts
Citizens for Life, had a ''gut fear of sitting with people
who were directly involved with taking life.''

Barbara Thorp was ''deeply anguished over the murders at the
clinics.'' She feared that ''if lines of direct
communication between prolife and prochoice leaders were not
opened, polarization would only deepen.'' Despite
misgivings, Thorp, a social worker and director of the
ProLife Office of the Archdiocese of Boston, was ''anxious
to meet the other side.''

The prochoice participants were also skeptical and
concerned. As president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood
League of Massachusetts, Nicki Nichols Gamble was directly
affected by the shootings. Although she felt that dialogue
might help, she ''wondered if the talks would divert my
energies from coordinating my organization's response to the
shootings and from assisting in the healing of my employees
and their families.''

Melissa Kogut, newly appointed executive director of Mass
NARAL, the state affiliate of the National Abortion Rights
Action League, wondered how she would ''justify to my board
and colleagues spending time on something that arguably
could be futile.''

The Rev. Anne Fowler, rector of St. John's Episcopal Church
in Jamaica Plain, believed that her perspective as a
Christian leader who is prochoice would be essential, but
worried that her viewpoint might not be respected by either
side. ''However, as a priest, peacemaker, and activist, I
had to accept this invitation.''

The two facilitators who would moderate all the meetings
were also anxious. Laura Chasin, director of the Public
Conversations Project, ''was afraid that talks might do more
harm than good.'' Susan Podziba, an independent public
policy mediator from Brookline, recalls, ''The threat of
violence was palpable. What if the wrong person found out
about the dialogue?''

The first meeting took place at the project's office in
Watertown on Sept. 5, 1995, a sweltering Tuesday evening.
''I had wanted to wear my clerical collar, but it was too
hot,'' recalls Fowler.

That first discussion was grueling. We could not agree on
what to call each other. All but one of us were willing to
use each side's preferred designation, in virtual or actual
quotation marks: ''prolife'' and ''prochoice.''

Our first of many clashes over language, this disagreement
remains unresolved. To this day, Gamble still cannot call
the other side prolife because ''I believe my cause is also
prolife,'' she says. This stand frustrates Thorp and her
colleagues. ''I have tolerated Nicki's refusal to call us
prolife but, frankly, it angers me. I wasn't eager to call
Nicki's side prochoice, but I did it because it seemed to be
necessary for showing respect and for moving the
conversation forward,'' Thorp says.

Kogut questioned her own willingness to agree to these
terms, ''but I came to two conclusions,'' Kogut says. ''To
proceed with a civil dialogue, we needed to call each other
what we each wanted to be called. Second, over time, I began
to see `prolife' as descriptive of the others' beliefs -
that life itself, more important than the quality of life,
was their preeminent value.''

We also struggled over how to refer to what grows and
develops in a pregnant woman's womb. The prochoice women
found ''unborn baby'' unacceptable and the prolife women
would not agree to ''fetus.'' For the sake of proceeding, we
all assented, uneasily, to the term ''human fetus.''

These opening exchanges brought us to the heart of our
differences. Nerves frayed. The chasm between us seemed

To help us listen and speak across this divide, ground rules
were critical. We would seek to use terms acceptable (or at
least tolerable) to all participants. We would not
interrupt, grandstand, or make personal attacks. We would
speak for ourselves, not as representatives of
organizations. Most important, the meetings would be
completely confidential unless all of us could agree upon a
way to go public.

We also made a commitment that some of us still find
agonizingly difficult: to shift our focus away from arguing
for our cause. This agreement was designed to prevent
rancorous debates.

And indeed, we believe this ground rule has been essential
to the long life of our dialogue. Knowing that our ideas
would be challenged, but not attacked, we have been able to
listen openly and speak candidly.

But it has not been easy.

''From the beginning, I have felt an enormous tension, Hogan
says, ''between honoring the agreement to not argue for our
position and my deep hope - which I still feel - that these
women for whom I have such great respect will change their
minds about abortion.''

Our ground rules also required us to refrain from polarizing
rhetoric. In one early session, we generated a list of ''hot
buttons'' - words and phrases that make it almost impossible
for some of us to think clearly, listen carefully, or
respond constructively.

Prochoice members are inflamed when called ''murderers'' or
when abortions are likened to the Holocaust or to
''genocide.'' Prolife participants are incensed by
dehumanizing phrases such as ''products of conception'' and
''termination of pregnancy'' that obscure their belief that
abortion is killing.

We also discussed stereotypes we thought were applied to us
by people ''on the other side.''

Prolife participants feel maligned when characterized as
religious fanatics taking orders from men, or as uneducated,
prudish individuals, indifferent to women in crisis and to
children after they are born. Prochoice members are offended
by labels such as anti-child, anti-men, anti-family,
elitist, frivolous, self-centered, and immoral.

Despite the strains of these early meetings, we grew closer
to each other. At one session, each of us told the group why
she had devoted so much of her time, energy, and talents to
the abortion issue. These accounts - all deeply personal -
enlightened and moved us.

After the fourth meeting, we agreed to extend our sessions
through the one-year anniversary of the shootings - an
occasion, we feared, when tensions over abortion might
ignite in Boston.

On the evening of Dec. 30, 1995, about 700 people gathered
at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline to honor the memory of
Lowney and Nichols. All our prochoice participants attended
the service. Fowler and Gamble officiated. In the solemn
crowd were Podziba, one of our facilitators, and two of our
prolife members, Hogan and Thorp, accompanied by David
Thorp, her husband.

''Seeing the other members of the group walk in was one of
the most meaningful moments of the service for me,'' Fowler

In her remarks, Gamble expressed gratitude ''for the prayers
of those who agree with us and the prayers of those who

Fowler, in her sermon, reminded us of the ''God who calls
out to all who love peace.'' She drew from the words of the
Hebrew prophet Isaiah, saying ''and new things have sprung
forth in the year since Lee Ann's and Shannon's deaths. Much
has been transformed, and much will be.''

Indeed, to those of us involved in the confidential
dialogues, much had been transformed. By the time of this
sad anniversary, each one of us had come to think
differently about those ''on the other side.''

While we struggled over profound issues, we also kept track
of personal events in one another's lives, celebrating good
times and sharing sorrows. As our mutual understanding
increased, our respect and affection for one another grew.

This increased understanding affected how we spoke as
leaders of our respective movements. The news media, unaware
that we were meeting, began noting differences in our public

In an article after the first-year anniversary of the
shootings, Globe reporter Don Aucoin wrote, ''Has the past
year brought the lowering of voices ... called for by
Cardinal Law, Governor William Weld and others? The answer
seems to be a qualified yes, at least among some

The article quoted Gamble as saying, ''There are numbers of
people on both sides of this question who have tried to be
thoughtful about the rhetoric they use.'' Gamble added that
she was hearing fewer uses of such labels as ''baby-killer,
murderer, Nazi.''

In the same article, Hogan is quoted as saying she uses
''prochoice because that is what they want to be called. I
have a basic respect for the person, even though I don't
agree with or respect the position.''

Thorp, too, was quoted. ''This call for a lowering of voices
sent a signal that we really needed to listen to each other
with care and respect. I'm more mindful now than I've ever
been of speaking in love, speaking in peace, and speaking in
respect to anyone, no matter how wide the differences are.''

In a National Public Radio interview about the anniversary,
Hogan explained that while she believed that abortion is
killing, she did not call it murder. Hogan also said,
''Toning down the rhetoric is critical. It's not just better
manners, but it turns out it's also better politics. ... We
reach people we may never otherwise have reached with the

Kogut felt and acted differently when she appeared with
prolife spokespeople on news shows and at speaking
engagements. Kogut recalls, ''I was struck by the media's
desire for conflict. One host of a radio talk show actually
encouraged me to attack my opponent personally.''

In early 1996, we continued to meet, anticipating that the
upcoming Salvi trial would present new challenges to protect
activists and the public from danger.

At one point, prolife advocates acted to keep proponents of
violence away from Massachusetts. In February 1996, the Rev.
Donald Spitz, head of ProLife Virginia, made it known that
he was planning to come to Boston to show support for what
he had called, according to the Globe, Salvi's ''righteous

McComish wrote a letter to Spitz, signed also by Hogan and
Thorp. ''Your public statements on the acceptability of
violence ... are counter to everything that the prolife
movement represents,'' McComish wrote. ''At this very
difficult time, you are not welcome in Massachusetts.''

Spitz and several of his allies objected to McComish's
charge. They suggested that she was betraying the cause. But
he did not come.

A growing trust opened a ''hot line'' channel of reliable
communication between us. The prolife leaders alerted Gamble
when there was a possibility of imminent physical danger.
''It lowered my anxiety - and moved me deeply - to know that
there were people on the other side who were concerned about
my safety,'' Gamble says.

Throughout these 51/2 years, though external events claimed
much of our attention, we managed to explore many aspects of
the abortion controversy, such as when life begins, the
rights of women, the rights of the unborn, why women get
abortions, and the aftermath of abortion.

We spent especially tense hours discussing the issue that
prochoice members describe as ''bans on certain abortion
procedures'' and that prolife participants call
''partial-birth abortions.'' We also probed a host of other
complex and challenging subjects: feminism, sex education,
euthanasia, suicide, the death penalty, the role of law in
society, and individual responsibility.

When addressing divisive topics, we expected to disagree.
But at times, conflicts caught us by surprise - flaring when
one side unwittingly used certain words in a way that struck
the other as presumptuous or offensive.

One provocative word has been ''violence.'' While the
prochoice leaders use it to refer to shootings and other
attacks on clinics, doctors, and staff, the prolife
activists believe that abortion also is a violent act.

In writing this article, we came to an impasse when one side
mentioned the Declaration of Independence. The prolife
participants wished to cite the Declaration as a
presentation of their core belief that the right to life is
inalienable and self-evident. The prochoice members
passionately objected to what they saw as an appropriation
of a document that they also cherish. To them, the
Declaration affirms every person's right to life and

In these and all of our discussions of differences, we
strained to reach those on the other side who could not
accept - or at times comprehend - our beliefs. We challenged
each other to dig deeply, defining exactly what we believe,
why we believe it, and what we still do not understand.

These conversations revealed a deep divide. We saw that our
differences on abortion reflect two world views that are

If this is true, then why do we continue to meet?

First, because when we face our opponent, we see her dignity
and goodness. Embracing this apparent contradiction
stretches us spiritually. We've experienced something
radical and life-altering that we describe in nonpolitical
terms: ''the mystery of love,'' ''holy ground,'' or simply,

We continue because we are stretched intellectually, as
well. This has been a rare opportunity to engage in
sustained, candid conversations about serious moral
disagreements. It has made our thinking sharper and our
language more precise.

We hope, too, that we have become wiser and more effective
leaders. We are more knowledgeable about our political
opponents. We have learned to avoid being overreactive and
disparaging to the other side and to focus instead on
affirming our respective causes.

Since that first fear-filled meeting, we have experienced a
paradox. While learning to treat each other with dignity and
respect, we all have become firmer in our views about

We hope this account of our experience will encourage people
everywhere to consider engaging in dialogues about abortion
and other protracted disputes. In this world of polarizing
conflicts, we have glimpsed a new possibility: a way in
which people can disagree frankly and passionately, become
clearer in heart and mind about their activism, and, at the
same time, contribute to a more civil and compassionate

The writers invite readers interested in sharing their
reflections to contact them directly at

Editor's note: Although the Globe's stylebook does not allow
the use of ''prochoice'' and ''prolife'' (preferring instead
such terms as ''abortion rights advocates'' or ''abortion
foes''), an exception was made in this article to better
reflect the views of the authors.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Tom Atlee  *  The Co-Intelligence Institute
  * PO Box 493 *  Eugene, OR 97440

Richard K Moore
Wexford, Ireland
Citizens for a Democratic Renaissance 
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