- Introduction and Overview
- The Limits of an Interest-Based Common Ground: The fallacy of “both sides” & The limits of “underlying interests”
- From Resolution to Transformation: Cultivating Dignity Rather than Meeting Interests
- Transforming the Abortion Conflict in America: Pro-Voice and More
- Appendix: Learning from the Experience of Others
Introduction and Overview
For the past year, the world of abortion politics has been consumed with the search for “common ground.” Not everyone likes it, but everyone’s been talking about it. The commotion started in May of 2009, when President Obama used a commencement speech at Notre Dame to call on pro-choice and pro-life activists to set aside the fighting and “discover at least the possibility of common ground.” After all, he said, these entrenched adversaries do have many goals in common: reducing unwanted pregnancies, creating better adoption possibilities, and supporting women in need who carry their pregnancy to term. If the two sides could “allot one another a minimal presumption of good faith,” the president suggested, they have an extraordinary opportunity to transform this culture war into “a tradition of cooperation and understanding.” Such a transformation would not necessarily mean that everyone agreed, but rather that we could live in disagreement without descending into hostility, demonization, caricature, or violence. The speech opened a rare window for new conversations and unusual cooperation in America’s abortion war. It inspired partnerships and collaborations that were inconceivable just a year ago, the most high-profile of which has been a bill – the Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act – that is currently awaiting action by Congress (for a list of other common ground proposals, look here). Such initiatives were met by controversy and cynicism from some, but they nonetheless marked the first efforts of their kind in years (for the latest on common ground efforts, look here, which will soon be moving here).
Four months before Obama’s Notre Dame speech, Aspen Baker broadcast her own call for “abortion peace” on her blog. Baker is co-founder and executive director of Exhale, which launched a national, after-abortion talkline in 2002 that counsels women and their significant others (men, families, supporters) without judgment and without any policy agenda. Although more than one in three American women will have an abortion in her lifetime, Baker explained in her blog post, social stigma keeps the personal experience of abortion from being discussed. When stories of abortion are included in the public conversation, they are invariably used as a political tool for pro-choice or pro-life activists, each of whom promotes a one-dimensional message either of relief and gratitude or regret and horror. Finding only these polar opposite scripts available in the public discourse on abortion, many of those directly affected by abortions are left voiceless and alienated because their experiences do not fit into either one. They regularly have no one to speak to without feeling judged or being made into a political pawn. Exhale’s talkline was created as a space for supportive communication with a counselor whose only agenda is to listen with respect and promote well-being.
After listening to thousands of women tell their stories on the talkline, Baker and her colleagues at Exhale have come to believe that these stories hold a game-changing potential for bringing peace to America’s abortion wars. They have heard women and men recount the full range of values and emotions that make up the spectrum of pro-life to pro-choice political rhetoric. Often deep feelings of both regret and relief sit side by side in the same story, though at times neither is central. But virtually always personal experiences are contextualized and concretized in the reality of relationships, family, religion, and society in ways that far surpass the simple narratives and stereotypes that dominate the public discourse. Viewing the depth and intimacy of these accounts as the basis for humanizing the public conversation on abortion and creating new pathways to better, innovative solutions and agendas, Exhale believes that meeting Obama’s call for civil and effective abortion politics depends on establishing authentic dialogue on the actual experience of abortion, in all of its complexity.
Baker’s vision statement didn’t have quite the same audience as Obama’s. It hasn’t received the media attention or financial support of the national common ground policy initiatives. Nonetheless, over the past year, Exhale has pursued its own unique vision by beginning a grassroots movement for a new perspective on abortion that it calls “pro-voice.” As Exhale presents it, to be pro-voice is to support open and honest communication about exactly that part of the abortion debate that so few people talk about: the experience itself. The public dialogue on abortion should be rooted in the experiences of women and their significant others that have dealt first-hand with the reality of abortion. Moreover, these stories should not be reduced to mere ammunition for one ideological side or the other, as has been the case for example with other abortion storytelling initiatives, such as NARAL’s Silent No More campaign in the mid-1980s or contemporary websites that highlight uniform stories of either relief or regret and sorrow. Rather, as explained in their blog, Exhale is Pro-Voice, Exhale aims to create “public and private forums where all women feel seen and understood and connected to one another and where their stories are heard with dignity and respect.” Their approach is rooted in the belief that as a society we will create better and more just policies if our public dialogue on controversial issues like abortion is guided by the honest and full expression of people’s lived experiences rather than the caricatures and one-sided oversimplifications that feed the abortion wars.
To date, Exhale’s pro-voice strategies have created a host of forums, though creating truly safe spaces for storytelling and dialogue on abortion free from political attack or misappropriation remains an extraordinary challenge. In addition to the talkline, Exhale has created a private online community for women to share and discuss their reactions to and feelings about their abortion experience, a zine entitled Our Truths-Nuestras Verdades whose mission is “to bring to light the diversity of abortion experiences by inviting each woman to speak her own truth, in her own voice.” Exhale has also partnered with the Silence Speaks project of the Center for Digital Storytelling to create workshops that teach women techniques to author an authentic personal account of their abortion story (for more on these workshops, look here, here, and here). Some of Exhale’s volunteer talkline counselors and other supporters – dubbed “pro-voice ambassadors” – have begun to place their own abortion stories into the public realm. Baker, meanwhile, has published several articles promoting and chronicling the pro-voice agenda on the reproductive health community site RHRealityCheck.
On the face of it, there is reason to be skeptical that a pro-voice approach can bring any measure of peace to an issue that is so polarizing and volatile in American public life. Pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike tend to view the very mention of “peace” with suspicion, if not outright hostility. What they want is victory, and thus they tend to interpret “peace” at best as a digression and at worst a capitulation. In the midst of political battle, letting one’s guard down in the interest of dialogue or complexity is a sign of weakness that only encourages the other side, and likely gives them opportunities to exploit to their advantage. In the eyes of most activists, then, those calling for peace either do not appreciate the stakes involved or do not understand the nature of the fight. While telling or listening to personal stories might make people feel better (or worse), the end-game in politics is policy and law: does abortion remain legal, how will women gain or not gain access to abortion services, and what will the role of government be in those processes. And the battles necessary to secure policy victories require motivated people willing to fight and fight hard. Talk of “peace” distracts, and it undermines the cause.
There is certainly no doubt that different policies will lead to tangibly different worlds. But focusing solely on this fact – and the legal and political power-struggles that it inspires – can be counter-productive and short sighted. One clear pattern noted by students of social conflict is that when profound social conflicts descend into all-or-nothing battles over political victories, everyone loses. Such conflicts undermine the dignity and integrity of all involved and stand as obstacles to creative thinking and wise solutions. While abortion activists on any side should not stop arguing or advocating for their goal, the way in which they collectively go about doing so impacts the chances for anyone to get what they are seeking. Even the most bitter and intense social conflict can be approached in affirming and constructive ways. In what follows, I aim to show that the pro-voice approach being championed by Exhale represents the foundation for such a system, and that Exhale’s storytelling work can serve as a critical building block to help us get there.
Pro-voice exemplifies the core insights of conflict transformation, a growing subfield in conflict resolution that focuses less on resolving conflicts through policy fixes and more on changing how we engage with one another when we are mired in conflict. Transformational approaches focus first and foremost on a long-term vision for enduring cultural change that rehumanizes the toxic social dynamics of conflicts. Conflict transformation practitioners seek to build a social context that supports people to advocate boldly and directly for their values and interests, yet do so in ways that affirm and sustain their own dignity and the dignity of those with whom they disagree. The underlying belief is that when we are able to engage in conflict in such ways, we have the greatest likelihood to produce intelligent and creative solutions that uphold and honor the values and interests of all parties. The key is enacting an expansive conflict transformation approach, something that was missing from President Obama’s Notre Dame speech and has continued to be absent from mainstream common ground efforts.
The Limits of an Interest-Based Common Ground
The strategy Obama presented at Notre Dame is an example of what is known as interest-based negotiation, currently the gold standard for conflict resolution in America. Alternately known as “principled negotiation,” it was best summed up in the ubiquitous management training text Getting to Yes, written nearly 30 years ago by leaders of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. The basic principle of “the Harvard model” is that better solutions and greater civility become possible when opposing sides shift their focus from their positions (the tangible outcomes they are seeking at any given moment) to their underlying interests (the needs, concerns, or desires that created those positions). Once that happens, they can often work together to meet mutual interests simultaneously, developing new and meaningful relationships in the process.
To get a sense of what happens when opponents move from positions to interests, consider one of the most commonly referenced illustrations: the 1979 negotiations between Israel and Egypt over the Sinai Peninsula. Both countries insisted on full control of Sinai, thereby creating a zero-sum game, leaving no room for negotiation. It turned out, however, that Israel’s primary interest in controlling Sinai was to maintain its security. By contrast, Egypt’s priority was to reclaim its full national sovereignty. Once these underlying interests were on the table, a solution could be found that met both countries’ primary needs: the land was returned to Egypt, but was kept demilitarized. What’s more, in the process of working together the two countries laid the foundation for the first ongoing diplomatic ties between Israel and one of its neighbors.
As this illustration shows, interest-based negotiation is both simple and elegant. Moreover, it has a track record of success in a wide range of contexts, including social conflict in the United States. For example, another often-celebrated illustration is the Greater Boston Interfaith Alliance, which brought together previously disparate communities of faith to work on common goals, such as improving education and healthcare and advocating for the poor. In the process, communities that had had significant, long-standing tensions created mutual and lasting bonds of good will and collaboration. Their approach has become a model for building partnerships between diverse religious communities across the country. In his abortion speech, Obama advocated the same blueprint for the abortion wars: if pro-choice and pro-life activists see that they share underlying interests and work together on meeting them, the process of collaboration could lead to greater civility – and new political solutions – going forward.
Unfortunately, an interest-based model is much less likely to be effective in a conflict like abortion. As a long-standing, deeply entrenched, and very public social conflict, the nature of the abortion conflict creates clear limitations for a principled negotiation approach. Here are two of the most significant:
1. The fallacy of “both sides”
Negotiation frameworks focus on bringing together the “relevant stakeholders” in the conflict. Typically, these are identified as the “two sides” of the conflict, such as pro-choice and pro-life activists in the case of abortion. But in entrenched social conflicts like abortion, there are usually many constituencies impacted by the conflict who do not easily fit into either “side.” In a conventional negotiation framework, such groups remain virtually invisible. Indeed, the women who started Exhale did so exactly because either they or their loved ones experienced the trauma of feeling alienated, manipulated, and unsupported amidst the abortion battles raging around them. In fact, the existence of a silent but directly impacted population is a nearly ubiquitous component of social conflict. It results from a classic pattern. As the conflict progresses, the adversaries become increasingly polarized, to the point that they eventually see the world in terms of us vs. them, good vs. evil. As advocates dig in to fight ever-harder against one another, they are increasingly invested in presenting the conflict to the public in black and white terms, vilifying the other side while showing no hesitation or doubt about the rightness of their own cause. In the process, both advocates and media increasingly occlude all voices of moderation, complexity, curiosity, or uncertainty. Ultimately, this creates the illusion that there are just two distinct and fundamentally opposing sides, but only because everyone else is too intimidated or disconnected to speak up.
When we attempt to address the conflict after such a dynamic is in place – accepting that “the two sides” represent everyone involved – all concerns and experiences that are outside the interests and storylines of pro-life and pro-choice activists are either glossed over or made subservient to those interests. This leaves out the unique and otherwise unavailable contributions that hidden or neglected groups can bring to crafting new agendas and new solutions. After all, policies have the greatest chance to achieve their objectives when they are anchored in the lived experience of those they directly impact. Collectively, women who have had abortions have insight about the way our society treats and understands abortion that other people simply do not. Hearing from such women may well invite both activists and the public to rethink their understanding of the conflict and how it should be approached. As an Exhale talkline counselor put it:
Having real information and experiences as a basis for discussion, as opposed to sterile statistics and strawmen, makes a huge difference in how people approach these discussions… It makes people less entrenched in inflexible political positions and more invested in finding compassionate approaches to the issues around abortion.
Echoing this sentiment, a major pro-choice communications strategist and Exhale supporter argues that having the reality of women’s experiences well-known and acknowledged in the public would “allow people, advocates, or elected officials to have a range of positions, not just a blanket pro or anti position, without being cast as traitors to the issue by their own side.” The ability to approach the issue with nuanced politics and deeper understandings drawn from personal experiences may allow advocates and policy makers to shed light on new areas of research or policy that they had previously wrongly ignored. Looking only at the interests of the two public adversaries in the conflict may unnecessarily block revelatory input that would contribute to wiser, more productive outcomes.
2. The limits of “underlying interests”
Advocates of interest-based negotiation say that once opposing sides work together to meet shared interests, they begin to build a culture of civility and partnership. Unfortunately, because they are only held together by the parties’ strategic interests, the depth and durability of such partnerships will be limited in an intractable social conflict like abortion. In such a context, ideological adversaries tend to see one another first and foremost as “enemy.” There is little chance they will come together in an enduring partnership unless and until that symbolic casting is cracked. To be sure, “enemies” in social conflicts will at times come to a negotiation table because of enlightened self-interest. But when this is all that holds them there, they are very likely to walk away quickly when things get complicated. What happens, for example, when overlapping interests no longer seem as important as opposing interests? In times of crisis or doubt, what will be the basis for sustaining a sense of partnership and mutuality?
The recent debates surrounding healthcare reform and the Stupak-Pitts Amendment illustrate this problem well. Stupak-Pitts marked the first time that abortion returned to the national political agenda since the mobilizations for “common ground” began several months earlier. Virtually immediately, the familiar polarizing rhetoric of the culture war returned to the fore, with many who had welcomed “common ground” a few months earlier returning to the high-conflict language of “us and them,” “good and evil”. At the time, progressive Reverend and common ground supporter Jim Wallis conceded, “This is precisely what a number of us were afraid could happen, and worked for months to try and avoid.”
Given the hostility of abortion politics, however, such swings should be expected when – as in much of the common ground efforts of the past year – such efforts are not actively committed to fostering a sense of shared humanity and authentic trust among participants. In general, we can predict that the longer and more public the hostilities of a given conflict, the less likely something like the Greater Boston Interfaith Alliance – where interest-based collaboration did produce sustained collaborative relationships and social change – can be replicated. This does not mean that such negotiations are not welcome. Making mutually-beneficial deals across conflict may well serve the public interest and become foundations for future collaborative work. And if such processes survive long enough, significant personal and organization relationships might evolve that can then withstand the challenges that will arise during times of heightened tension. But the limits of this approach must be acknowledged. Without forging meaningful bonds between pro-choice and pro-life activists, collaborative efforts based on immediate interests will likely fall apart quickly whenever the political spotlight returns to abortion. Worse, such collapses typically serve as more “evidence” that reaching across the conflict is simply a waste of time, solidifying conflict polarization and making the prospects for peace-building efforts worse than before.
With respect to abortion, then, interest-based negotiation runs at least two crucial risks.
- It prevents us from utilizing the wisdom and insights gained from the experiences of directly-affected populations whose stories might change the conventional game completely, uncovering the inadequacies of the either/or narratives that have come to dominate the conflict.
- In the face of entrenched social conflicts, it often creates fragile bonds, agreements, and institutions that are likely to collapse in times of crisis, creating more disenchantment and cynicism toward collaboration.
A more robust peace-building approach must do at least two things: give voice to all those impacted by the conflict and cultivate authentic and meaningful relationships among them. These goals have been the central focus of conflict transformation.
From Resolution to Transformation: Cultivating Dignity Rather Than Meeting Interests
The field of conflict transformation emerged piecemeal from a variety of sources, including nonviolent and peace activism, psychology, business management, community mediation, and post-conflict reconciliation. In each of these contexts, theorists and practitioners sought to figure out how people can move through tense, difficult situations without descending into the cycle of ever-increasing antagonism, frustration, and dehumanization that tend to characterize conflicts of all kinds. As they saw it, the cycle of high-conflict creates two great tragedies. First, it undermines human dignity. In high conflict, people come to see themselves and their adversaries as players in a zero-sum game that they must win at all costs. As this happens, they tend to mischaracterize each other and categorically dismiss all who disagree with them. Over time this logic settles in as a collective norm and no one can engage with the conflict without being swept into mutual attack and vilification, a process corrosive to the integrity and human dignity of all involved.
Second, the cycles of destructive conflict eliminate the possibility of exploring innovative or creative solutions and new agendas. As adversaries dig in during protracted conflicts, their thinking becomes myopic and reductionist, consumed primarily with two things: the injustices committed by their opponents and the singular need to win. Typically, in such a state of affairs, people refuse to consider anything that does not confirm their own entrenched thinking. As the escalation continues, narrow thinking often reaches the point at which adversaries prefer to obstruct any action that might be beneficial to their enemies or that indicates collaboration with the other side. In such a context, there is no room for questioning assumptions, creative problem-solving, or exploration of new paths that might advance the interests and values of all.
Conflict transformation is primarily concerned with rectifying these two tragedies. Transformative efforts seek to create ways of being in conflict that sustain the human dignity of all involved and expand the capacity for broad, creative thinking. Such methods do not amount to “playing nice” with one another, pushing people to compromise, or even finding “common ground.” Rather than looking for fixes for the surface-level policy differences, conflict transformation recognizes that in protracted conflicts a potent and far-reaching infrastructure of aggression, retaliation, and demonization has taken root and topical treatments will not put a dent in its machinery. The goal of conflict transformation is to challenge and disassemble this destructive infrastructure and replace it with a restorative, rehumanizing system that allows us to respond to conflict and crisis productively through open and direct communication. Sustained critique and vigorous questioning remain, existing alongside open, curious dialogue. Both critique and dialogue stay grounded in mutual respect and oriented toward collaborative exploration. Conflict transformation posits that such constructive engagement leads to wiser answers to common struggles and to the creation of stronger societies able to maintain integrity in public life even through profound differences.
To promote this type of cultural shift, conflict transformation initiatives upend the either/or logic of the mutually demonizing narratives that have come to dominate public debate about the issue at hand. They tend to do this in two ways. On the one hand, they use various forms of media to illustrate the complexity of the conflict and tell the stories of its hidden populations – especially those whose perspectives and experiences have the potential to change the conversation. On the other, they convene structured forums that support a range of stakeholders – the most visible adversaries and others impacted by the issue – to communicate directly with one another, cultivate relationships and mutual recognition, and imagine new agendas and policy solutions based on the lessons of their interactions. Both of these strategies encourage people to broaden their field of vision, which leads many to stop participating in the negative conflict system and seek both deeper understanding of the problem and different, constructive avenues of engagement. Such people become a sort of “peace constituency,” promoting the values and objectives of conflict transformation while refusing to enter into the wholesale dismissal or caricature of others. Effective transformation efforts not only work to build this constituency but to support it to impact the widest possible public, so that their transformative experiences are not fleeting private moments but are leveraged to create society-wide change.
This does not mean that one-sided, escalatory, or “extremist” frames will not still be introduced into the public conversation. While many may acknowledge the need for new, rehumanizing narratives once they are willing and able to listen to the complexity of people’s real experiences, others will very likely refuse to engage or remain unmoved. However, to the extent that multiple experiences on abortion are seen and embraced by the public and advocates alike – to the extent that a peace constituency grows – the success of oversimplified or demonizing strategies will be limited. While some will undoubtedly continue to promote the all-or-nothing caricatures and rhetoric of extreme polarization, fewer and fewer people will accept them as true.
In the appendix to this paper, I briefly profile a few conflict transformation programs in relation to abortion and other issues, and highlight some of the successful strategies they have used. Exhale’s pro-voice efforts, from the talkline to the private online community and the storytelling workshops – all represent steps toward such ends, though they are only first steps in what could be a broad campaign for transformation.
Transforming the Abortion Conflict in America: Pro-Voice and More
Exhale’s pro-voice framework has the potential to shift the dominant public conversation on abortion and undermine the destructive consequences of today’s abortion wars. As Exhale sees it, women’s personal accounts describing the complicated realities of abortion demonstrate the hollowness of the back-and-forth debate that defines current abortion politics. In a recent email, an Exhale talkline counselor illustrated this hollowness to me with reference to pro-choice activists:
Acknowledging that a woman feels like she killed her child is a very difficult thing to do when you as the listener are terrified of a world where abortion is illegal. Convincing her that she’s wrong allows you to remain in the comfortable territory of ‘Defending Reproductive Freedom.’ However, it also trivializes her experiences and ignores the real issues that she’s dealing with.
Exhale’s aim is to spotlight those stories that challenge the narrowness of the one-dimensional rhetoric of either side, and to do so without demonizing the activists on either side. Rather, these stories challenge activists on both sides to amend the ways they advocate so that their rhetoric honors rather than trivializes the experiences of individuals. Activists can then expand their field of vision and demonstrate a commitment to the dignity of all that transcends their drive to “win.”
For the time being, it is worth noting, Exhale’s pro-voice work has progressed slowly. Its programs have often been private and confidential, bringing relatively few stories into the public domain. Such an approach, however, is perfectly in line with transformative principles. One truism of conflict transformation work is that you can only ask people to take steps they are ready and able to take at any given moment. At the height of conflict, people will often refuse to speak even privately about anything that deviates from standard party lines. It’s too risky – emotionally and sometimes even physically. For this reason, conflict transformation practitioners focus on expanding the conversation at the rate that participants can handle. Thus, for example, Exhale’s private online community meets women where they are, rather than pushing them into situations that they cannot handle. The expansion of this community and the creation of similar spaces that promote voice and complexity while sustaining people’s dignity and safety may ultimately empower women to bring their stories to public forums. Some may even come to demand that such public forums be created if they come to believe, as Exhale did, that they can be a transformative contribution to society. Private environments may also serve as support networks to help people deal with the vulnerability they will almost certainly feel when placing their private abortion story in the public sphere.
Still, while Exhale’s work has the potential to build a community of women willing and able to bring their stories onto the public stage as well as initiate an important challenge to the destructive patterns of abortion politics, their exclusive focus on women that have had abortions ultimately can constitute only one slice of a truly transformative pro-voice movement. Who are the other, still hidden, constituents with unique experiences and histories to contribute to this dialogue? These may include women who considered but chose not to have abortions, medical practitioners who offer abortions or choose not to, men and other family members who have been directly wrapped up in all of these decisions and their impact. A comprehensive pro-voice approach would invite participation from all of these groups and others. Certainly, every forum and every story cannot be all-inclusive. But on the systemic level, true social transformation requires that all of these constituencies be invited into the conversation as valued partners and collaborators. Thus, while Exhale’s work can comprise an essential contribution for bringing peace to the abortion wars, it is neither sufficient nor complete.
I strongly urge anyone that was moved by the President’s call last May or that has a desire to bring peace to this culture war to support Exhale’s specific pro-voce work as an important piece of a broader potential umbrella for conflict transformation. To get a sense of what a coordinated, society-wide transformation initiative might include, we can turn to the blueprint offered by Mennonite scholar John Paul Lederach, perhaps America’s foremost writer and practitioner of conflict transformation. In his book Building Peace, Lederach argues that a comprehensive transformation strategy requires a web of initiatives mobilized simultaneously on multiple social levels, and he encourages practitioners to connect their short-term strategies to a long-term vision conceptualized in decades, not just months or years. He then outlines a range of specific objectives, including:
- Build an inventory of organizations and individuals that are working now or have worked in the past to promote conflict transformation. In other words, identify the full peace constituency that already exists.
- Support communication among all levels of this constituency, offering them opportunities to share ideas, learn from one another, and coordinate efforts when it helps their respective causes.
- Create forums of honest and open communication among all those affected by the conflict, reaching out especially to those who have not been part of the conventional conversation. Design those forums to harness the collective knowledge and wisdom of participants and support them to act based on the results of their interactions.
- Enable all those directly impacted by the conflict to share their stories with the broader public.
- Identify and recruit the people and organizations that have the most leverage as transformative change-makers. Notably, these tend to be social and cultural leaders who are trusted messengers for the broader public. They are rarely the already-existing political leadership, who often are economically and professionally bound to the machinery of escalation and dehumanization that exists.
- Create peace-donor conferences to help educate, train, and invest in conflict transformation organizations and connect their work to those in a position to influence integrated funding strategies across multiple organizations.
While this list just begins to delineate the objectives of a coordinated conflict transformation framework, it helps connect Exhale’s current pro-voice activities with Baker’s ambitious call for bringing peace to the abortion war. Perhaps Exhale can serve as a catalyst for other individuals and organizations to adopt a pro-voice approach to make complementary contributions to conflict transformation for abortion politics in America. Or perhaps Exhale will find the resources and partners it needs to scale up its pro-voice programs to become a formidable, wide-reaching engine of national conflict transformation. In either case, there are a host of precedents and models they may wish to learn from and adapt to their context and perspective. I present short accounts of several of these examples in the appendix to this paper, which I offer as an entry point for imagining how new and innovative pro-voice initiatives could be created that would be appropriate to the abortion context and go beyond Exhale’s current efforts. While many conflict transformation tools exist, there is no formulaic blueprint for them. Like Exhale’s programs, all transformation initiatives were invented by individuals and organizations who were moved to engage, creating their programs from the ground up through a process of trial and error guided by the principles of conflict transformation.
As I’ve tried to show here, these principles follow from a slightly different vision of “peace” than the one most people have. From a conflict transformation lens, the definition of “peace” has little to do with finding agreement per se. It does not require the eradication of conflict and hostility and it has nothing to do with people being nice to each other or getting pushed to compromise. Rather, the transformative vision of peace comes from a more realistic understanding of human nature, one that accepts that conflict will always be present. Differences and divisions are part of society. And indeed there is nothing wrong with this. Conflicts are extraordinary engines of growth, change, and the expansion of justice. But the permanence of conflict does not imply that there can never be peace. From a transformative perspective, peace is the state we reach when we are able to engage in conflict directly and passionately, but without dehumanizing one another or ourselves, whether through violence or words. When we are able to enter into conflict in such a manner, our mental state stays broad enough and inclusive enough that we can create better, wiser options to address the problems at hand. Thus, we can evaluate the level of peace we have achieved not by whether or not we have bitter differences or divisions, but how we respond to them when they arise.
The common ground campaigns of the last year have comprised an effort to break out of the high conflict machinery that exists around abortion and supports and sustains the dehumanizing norms of war as the status quo. But overlapping policy interests simply do not and cannot create the connections required to rehumanize our discourse in the face of deep divisions. Only sustained, authentic communication oriented toward mutual recognition and holistic understandings can do that. Encouraging such communication must be done with intentionality and care, placing a special focus on the neglected or hidden stories that might help broaden our current thinking. Exhale’s work and pro-voice vision live up to these ideals and hopefully mark the start of an extended campaign to bring the type of peace outlined above to this corner of America’s culture wars.
Appendix: Learning from the Experience of Others
To utilize the knowledge and experience of other projects, a great place to begin is the history of past transformation efforts on abortion, including some impressive though little-known projects from the 1990s. From 1993 through 2000, for example, Search for Common Ground sponsored the Network for Life and Choice, which coordinated dialogues between pro-choice and pro-life activists in 20 cities and hosted two national conferences (one of whose activities are chronicled here) aimed at conflict transformation. As detailed in their manual, dialogues began with participants working together to draft a statement of purpose, such as the following statement, adopted by the Philadelphia chapter:
“Common Ground of Greater Philadelphia is a group of pro-life and pro-choice people committed to moving beyond polarization on the abortion issue by learning to communicate with respect, identify shared values, and work side-by-side to achieve common goals.”
Building on this initial collaboration, dialogues followed a well-structured set of procedures and used a trained facilitator to enable participants to further cultivate trust at their own pace. This included small group conversations intended to open up mutual curiosity by having participants share personal stories and ask questions of one another. As dialogues proceeded, participants were given the opportunity to identify shared values and goals and to create a shared agenda moving forward. Thus, while the dialogues were aimed at finding consensus around solutions, they were committed to ensuring that such problem-solving emerge from open dialogue aimed at mutual understanding and relationship-building.
Although the Network stuck to a “two sides” logic – bringing in pro-choice and pro-life advocates to encounter one another – their experience illustrates that there is much transformative potential in such a context and their manual offers a sophisticated and proven entry-point for reaching that potential in face-to-face community dialogues. As the dialogues progressed and trust was built among participants, people began to speak less from the point of view of their political positions and more in terms of their personal experiences. As the Network’s Director, Mary Jacksteit, told me in a recent email: “Within the dialogue the participants could bring forth their complete selves… unlimited by the strictures of public debate.” As a result, she said, “people had the opportunity to, and did, speak as women who’d had abortions, or hadn’t, men who’s partners had an abortion, counselors, pastors, sisters, mothers, etc…. [and] the rich array of voices and interests is exactly what emerged.” Once they were able to move away from the black-and-white, either/or debate that dominates standard public dialogue, the complexity I have advocated for in this paper made its way to the fore. The honest and powerful relationship-building process enabled at least some of these communities to reframe the conversation on abortion in a more holistic and multi-dimensional way.
The tangible impact of this approach – and the potential of conflict transformation more generally – was highlighted by the Network’s activities in Buffalo, and the reaction that the Buffalo community had to the murder of an abortion provider in 1998. Abortion politics in Buffalo had long been extremely contentious. By the late ‘90s, the Network had been holding dialogues between local pro-choice and pro-life leaders for several years and leaders of the Buffalo Coalition for Common Ground presented a unified response to the murder. They denounced violence against providers, rejected any escalatory rhetoric from either side, and declared the need for working together to create a shared long-term agenda for responding to the tragedy and preventing others in the future. Within a few months, the coalition created this “New Way” agenda, which called for pro-life and pro-choice activists in Buffalo to work together on a series of issues including preventing teen pregnancy, promoting male and female sexual responsibility, and fostering respect and equality for women. The declaration received national media attention and galvanized increased local solidarity for rejecting violence and demonization. In the spring of 1999, when Operation Rescue held a “Save America” rally in Buffalo, local pro-life leaders joined their pro-choice counterparts in distancing themselves from it because they saw it as too polarizing and incendiary. The event drew very few participants and had no local impact. In this way, establishing transformative dialogue across the conflict had turned the community into one not only unwilling to allow a tragic act of aggression to initiate the familiar degenerative conflict cycle, but actually willing to react to such an act proactively and constructively. Those that were interested in using the events in Buffalo as a springboard for escalatory activism simply found no supporters willing to join.
A second illustration comes from a round of dialogue started at the Public Conversations Project (PCP) in 1995 between three pro-choice and three pro-life leaders of large advocacy organizations in the Boston area. The six women each agreed to participate, some very reluctantly, at the request of the Archdiocese of Boston and then-Governor William Weld after a gunman killed two women and wounded others at a local health clinic that offered abortions. Some of the methods of the PCP framework closely followed the SFCG model: the women agreed not to debate who was right or wrong about abortion and focus instead on building a basic understanding of one another in order to foster trust between them and ultimately help de-escalate what had become extreme local tensions. These sessions, however, were held in secret because publicity might draw the ire of the women’s constituencies and put them in both personal and professional danger. Operating out of the spotlight allowed them to be more patient and less reactive than they likely would have been if their process had been made public. Moreover, while the SFCG framework included the creation of a shared policy agenda as a goal of the dialogues, the PCP framework remained more open-ended, aimed exclusively at having these leaders from opposing sides seek understanding of one another.
Having initially agreed to four sessions, meetings continued for more than five years. In the end, the women declared that no common ground was reached: no one changed her position on whether abortion should be legal and each vowed to continue to fight for her cause. Yet each of the women came to see both themselves and the other side very differently. As they put it, they moved from seeing those on the other side as icons and images to seeing them as “regular people” led by deep and compelling convictions. While their initial meetings were dominated by heated debates over language (neither “pro-choice” nor “pro-life” were agreed upon terms), the women eventually began using the preferred vocabulary of the other side. They stopped clumping their many opponents into a single group and refused to join in when the media or their own supporters disparaged the other side’s humanity. According to the women, moreover, none of these changes were made as a strategy of “compromise,” but rather because they had come to understand their differences as ones of sincere interpretation rather than intolerance, irrationality, or ignorance. Stories about these dialogues can be found here, and an extensive – and illuminating – interview with four of the participants can be found here.
In a large scale social conflict, direct, face-to-face communication amongst the entire interested public may not be possible. Some organizations have thus turned to forms of mass media as a vehicle for far-reaching transformation. An excellent example of such a process comes from the work of another Search for Common Ground (SFCG) project. In Sierra Leone, for example, SFCG created the country’s most popular (by far) radio program, Atunda Ayenda, a soap opera listened to by 80-90% of the population and widely credited for sustaining popular support for the reconciliation process that followed the country’s recent decade-long civil war. The show engages with topics like HIV/AIDS and state corruption as it follows the lives of several young people, including an ex-combatant and a former war prisoner who try to reconstruct their lives. In doing so, it creates a way for a broad audience currently gripped by cycles of polarization, silence, and aggression to have a safe way to engage with some of the difficult elements of the conflict. A soap opera acts as a common reference point for the public to relate to and speak about topics that may have previously been too volatile or stigmatized to discuss in the open. Moreover, it presents a small cast of relatable, likable, and simply human characters from across the conflict dealing – at times well, at times less well – with the real hardships shared by all. In doing so, the program embodies a new, holistic national narrative that has resonated in Sierra Leon and proved a crucial contribution to the country’s capacity to emerge from civil war. In the last few years, Atunda Ayenda has become a model for dozens of SFCG dramatic radio and television programs in countries with extraordinary levels of ethnic conflict.
A Washington, D.C. based organization named Just Vision embodies a second approach for utilizing media to reach wide audiences for conflict transformation. In 2006 Just Vision created a feature-length documentaries – Encounter Point – that tell the stories of civilian efforts of Israelis and Palestinians seeking to resolve the conflict nonviolently. Much like Exhale’s belief in the conversation-changing potential of women’s experiences with abortion, Just Vision believes that telling the story of meaningful joint efforts of nonviolent peacemaking in the Middle East can directly challenge the conventional narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the Middle East and around the world, those narratives tend to either demonize one side through a simple victim-oppressor binary or cynically present two populations locked in perpetual and inevitable enmity. Advocates on either side regularly claim that the other side is not a true “partner for peace” and will “only understand force” and thus must be fought through violence. Mainstream media, moreover, focuses almost exclusively on governing leaders, military or militant activity, and moments of violent crisis – all of which support the standard storylines.
By contrast, Encounter Point not only chronicles peace-building activism by Israelis and Palestinians, it does so in ways that neither oversimplify the barriers to peace nor denigrates those opposed to it. The film shows extended, complex conversations among nonviolent activists – who are the film’s central protagonists – and Israelis and Palestinians from the broader public who don’t believe nonviolence can protect their people’s lives and interests. The nonviolent activists honor the views and emotions of their critics, refusing to descend into self-righteous accusatory exchanges that often characterize such political debate. In this way, the filmmakers acknowledge the reasonableness and humanity of those rejecting nonviolent approaches, even as they chronicle the continued commitment to nonviolence of the film’s four protagonists. In doing so, both the filmmakers and their subjects model a commitment to valuing the experiences and perspectives of those with whom we disagree and thus invite us to understand the conflict in a nuanced and holistic way.
Conflict transformation practitioners also have much to learn from how Just Vision leveraged Encounter Point and its other educational resources to expose broad audiences to the stories they document. The film was not only screened at multiple film festivals, but has also reached millions of people in multiple contexts through media outlets that include Oprah, CNN, al Jazeera, and Yediot Arhonot (a major Israeli newspaper). They were able to secure a full screening of Encounter Point on al Arabiya, one of the largest television channels in the Arab world, reaching 130 million viewers. Just Vision also strategically distributes their materials to community centers and schools, youth movements, university groups, and NGO leaders in both the Middle East and North America. Finally, they have worked to help the films’ subjects gain access to influential political leaders including the Jordanian Royal Family and both the Spanish and Canadian Parliaments.
Another conflict transformation organization working on the Middle East conflict, Encounter, is worth mentioning for its ability to achieve widespread impact through intimate face-to-face encounters, without much publicity. Encounter brings influential Jewish leaders, primarily from the United States, on trips to Palestinian cities in the West Bank to meet with Palestinian grassroots activists, political negotiators, Sheikhs and schoolchildren. Over the past five years, their trips have constituted the largest civilian presence of Jews in the West Bank, where Israeli citizens are prohibited by law from entering and non-Israeli Jews tend to fear to go. Encounter’s approach is noteworthy from the perspective of conflict transformation in several respects. First, their educational approach supports the dignity and creative, critical thinking of their participants to reach their own conclusions about the situation, without advancing any particular political positions or policy agenda. Like Search for Common Ground and Just Vision, they provide participants with the opportunity to hear invisible stories occluded by the dominant narratives of the conflict. They only ask of their participants that they extend listening, curiosity, respect, and compassion towards the stories they hear from both Palestinians and Jews. In addition, they strategically identify and recruit “grass-tops leaders” – those who are trusted messengers to their own networks and constituencies, including clergy, institutional leaders, educators, business people, and philanthropists. They believe that the most lasting transformation occurs when people have the opportunity to encounter face-to-face those they had dehumanized and dismissed, but that for this interpersonal transformation to become systemic transformation, participants must be carefully selected, trained, and leveraged through intensive follow-up. Finally, Encounter intentionally works to bring Jewish leaders from across the political spectrum, especially those whose religious affiliations and political leanings typically predispose them against awareness of the lived experience and needs of the other. This models a commitment to valuing multiple perspectives and communicating across differences, it ensures that Encounter trips do not become an echo chamber for one-sided thinking, and it makes it far more difficult to characterize Encounter as another propaganda organization for one side or another. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it helps Encounter maximize the potential impact of their programs. Once participants are back in their country of origin, for example, their experiences are taken back to a wider web of workplaces, families, and political organizations – ideally bringing some degree of the stories and realities on the ground to a wide swath of the Jewish diaspora community. Moreover, the network of Encounter alumni represents one of the few avenues for communication and trust across opposing positions on the conflict, especially in the United States. In this way, Encounter manages to support a type of political dialogue and interaction that is all-too-rare for such a polarized issue.