*Guest Post by Pro-Voice High-Five Awardee for New Thinking: Eyal Rabinovitch*
“Do you find most public discourse on abortion painful?” This was the opening question on the invitation to the recent two-day “Open Hearts/Open Minds” conference that invited pro-life and pro-choice advocates and scholars to Princeton University to be in respectful and open conversation with one another. Several months earlier, I had offered my personal answer (“yes… very”) to that question in the form of a essay on an organization called Exhale and the pro-voice approach to abortion it’s been championing in recent years.
In an entrenched social conflict like abortion, I argued, the extreme polarization and bitterness of the conflict is more than painful – it’s downright destructive. Let me offer just a few examples here. For starters, people who have something to say that don’t fit into the points of view of those two sides are drowned out and neglected. Voices of complexity, moderation, or conciliation – including the voices of people dealing directly with abortion in their lives – are not tolerated, leaving out whatever contributions they might have to make toward better policies or greater understanding. Beyond that, the increasing polarization prevents both activists and policy makers from listening to one another’s actual arguments, understanding one another’s concerns, or working together collaboratively on points of mutual interest. At the same time, the public at large increasingly gets turned off by waves of demonizing rhetoric and oversimplifications. Sick of hearing the same angry conversation over and over again, people tune out and stop engaging in a social issue of great importance.
By contrast, a pro-voice approach argues for rooting our public conversation in the full complexity of people’s actual experiences with abortion rather than the caricatures and one-dimensional language that dominates the public conversation. A pro-voice orientation emphasizes creating space for people to share and listen to one another’s experiences with abortion not as a way to create ammunition for one ideological side or the other, but to rehumanize, revatilize, and de-polarize this crucial and profound social issue. As a student and practitioner of conflict transformation – a subfield of conflict studies focused on changing how we engage in our disagreements so that we can advocate for our values without destroying our own dignity or the dignity of those with whom we disagree – I embrace Exhale’s pro-voice vision and believe it can play a foundational role on a long-term path towards meaningful, restorative culture change on abortion.
Though it did not use the pro-voice label, the goals of the Open Hearts/Open Minds conference presented the event as an effort to arrive at similar ends: to explore new ways to think and speak about abortion, to approach issues related to abortion with open hearts and minds, to define the areas of disagreement and work together on areas of common ground, and to get to know those on different sides more personally. Each of these is central to undoing the assumptions and patterns that sustain the destructive consequences of conflict polarization and moving toward transformative change.
Unfortunately, the conference itself was a mixed bag. On the one hand, its very existence and the frequent articulation by conveners and speakers of a desire for constructive engagement across the conflict was an accomplishment. More than that, the speakers included people and statements that are not usually heard from in the mainstream conversation, including the experiences of those that have already been working on common ground efforts and occasional personal stories that speakers shared of their own relationship to the issue and to their colleagues.
Still, there were several major weaknesses that worked against the conference achieving its goals. Most egregiously, virtually all of the conference sessions were designed as debates among experts from opposing sides of the issue. This meant that virtually all of the communication remained emotionally detached and that most of the arguments were the same old things we’ve heard before. Perhaps more importantly, the debate format promoted the familiar adversarial mindset of the conflict instead of working to minimize it. Those few speakers who spoke of their own experiences, emotions, or internal questions did so against the tide of the format’s emphasis on detached expertise and abstract reasoning.
And for those of us in the audience, there was no structured support to help us speak to others across the conflict. Though there were shared meals and extended breaks between sessions, those that wished to use that time to engage in even the simplest conversation with people across the conflict had to risk a great deal of vulnerability. Over the course of Saturday, as I asked about 20 attendees at random if they had spoken with anyone on the other side, all but two said no. Most said they would have liked to, but didn’t really know how to start. In these ways, the conference was a missed opportunity to cultivate even the very beginnings of cross-conflict relationship building.
So what should those of us sincerely interested in creating culture change take from Open Hearts/Open Minds? Let me offer three thoughts. First, as a one-off event, a single conference can only achieve so much. A real transformation in the public conversation on abortion will require a multi-layered, comprehensive strategy that thinks in terms of years and decades rather than singular events. It creates many forums at different social levels all contributing what they can. Yes, the journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step and a conference such as this could serve as just that. But that would only be true if extensive, prolonged effort goes into cultivating and expanding a pro-voice infrastructure around abortion.
Second, conflict transformation is best served by communication that prioritizes personal experience and open dialogue at least as much as scholarly knowledge and structured debate. Rational debate simply does not move people out of entrenched positions in a polarized conflict. On the contrary, it encourages people to listen in order to prove you wrong rather than to understand you or connect to you as a human being. By contrast, the empathic listening and speaking actually do work to rehumanize a toxic social arena are usually more likely to happen when people are speaking as individuals full of hope, fear, anger, and curiosity rather than experts with credentials and arguments.
Finally, forums for cross-conflict dialogue are most powerful and effective when they are participatory and elicitive, meaning that conveners understand their role as supporting people to speak directly as much as possible on topics they were able to have a hand in creating. Virtually everyone at the room at Open Hearts/Open Minds was someone directly or professionally connected to abortion politics. They had their own story to tell, their own questions to ask, and could have benefited from listening to others. Yet they were not offered any type of support to create safety for communication and had no say in the substantive topics for discussion. Authentically participatory and elicitive forums increase the likelihood that the process will have been meaningful to participants and enabled them to build relationships with others present. This might mean that such forums will need to remain private or even secretive, but that won’t prevent them from having great potential value in the long run.
These, I believe, are the lessons to be learned from the Open Hearts/Open Minds conference, an imperfect but worthy experiment that ought to be complimented with better forums appropriately constructed to contribute to rehumanizing the conversation for a wide array of different audiences. My hope is that those interested in advancing transformation do not wait for the next Ivy League conference before taking the next steps.