The Common Good
January-February 1999

Finding Common Ground

by Naomi Wolf, Frederica Mathewes-Green | January-February 1999

Getting to Disagreement. Dialogue that has an impact.

Feminist author Naomi Wolf and writer Frederica Mathewes-Green disagree about whether abortion ought to be a legal right. But unlike many who take opposing sides on controversial issues, the two are committed to a process of dialogue that has come to be known as the "common ground" approach. The following is adapted from their remarks at an October 1997 Call to Renewal conference in Arlington, Virginia, on the far-reaching potential of the common ground process.—The Editors

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Frederica Mathewes-Green: How can we actually get people who sharply disagree to talk to each other? First, you need to realize that the expectations and the goals of what common ground will accomplish are not enormous. We don't expect this to ever be a vast nationwide movement. We recognize there's a certain kind of temperament, a certain kind of person, who is attracted to common ground. They want to be there, they want to listen, they want to dialogue. It's a good thing to give the example of people in dialogue who disagree, peacefully, respectfully.

Second, it is fundamental in common ground to respect that people are going to disagree. Common ground is not about compromise or negotiation. In fact, attempting to persuade someone is forbidden under common ground rules. Our goal is just to understand a little better what people think. Because of the way the term common ground gets used, naturally some people presume it means that we're negotiating toward a compromised position in the middle. I can understand why people would think that, but that's not what we mean. People's profound convictions on this issue are respected and we don't try to change them.

The third point, and what I think you're hoping to do in bringing churches together, is the question, Can you actually accomplish something? You're doing all this nice, lovely sort of touchy-feely listening and comprehending and maybe some understanding, and you're bearing witness to the power of peaceful dialogue. But are you actually accomplishing anything? We have not been able to accomplish a lot of action items in abortion common ground. But we discovered pretty quickly that we agreed, to a large extent, that adoption should be better understood, better promoted, there should be more education about it, that it is a good option for a pregnant woman.

With some things, just the process of talking is fascinating. For example, a woman who runs an abortion clinic in Davenport, Iowa, and a woman who is in charge of Operation Rescue in Buffalo, New York, are meeting to have dialogue. They're recording it and will transcribe their dialogues on the topic of the acceptable limits of protest outside abortion clinics. The clinic owner believes that some degree of protest certainly is within First Amendment rights, so they're trying to decide what really is useful, helpful, and not too offensive. That's the sort of action item we've been able to do.

LET ME TALK a minute about the actual mechanism of a common ground dialogue. In our local group, we begin with a daylong workshop that we ask everybody to go through before they join the ongoing dialogue group. In this group we have both plenary sessions and small group sessions. A small group session is four to six people, evenly balanced between pro-life and pro-choice. There's a facilitator in each group. A good beginning question is raised, such as, What experiences led you to take the position that you do on this issue? People one at a time talk about that. If a pro-lifer describes what experiences she's had, then a pro-choicer in the group is asked to reflect back, as accurately as she can, what the first woman said, so that the pro-lifer knows that she's been listened to and understood. Then a pro-choicer does the same. You're not allowed to put your little rhetorical twist on it to get the knife in. It has to satisfy the pro-choicer.

You cannot imagine how healing this is. To have someone that you thought hated you, and someone that you're pretty sure misunderstood you, actually understand you. You know they may not agree, but you can see that your words have had impact. They may still come to a different conclusion, but they know what you're talking about, they understand it. It's a powerful moment.

Other questions that may be asked include, "Try to get at what has hurt you. What name have you been called that you never want to be called again?" "What question did you always want to ask somebody on the other side?" And we have a little caveat here: It has to be a sincere question. We define a sincere question as a question you don't know the answer to. There are, of course, a lot of insincere questions out there, rhetorical questions designed to make people look bad. We don't tolerate that in common ground. If there's something that you really don't understand about how a pro-lifer can arrive at that point, or why they take a position they do, or how they deal with a phenomenon or a fact that you understand, you can ask that and they'll sincerely answer it.

Every time our group meets, we'll take a question. Pro-life one time, pro-choice the next time. Some of the questions we've had, for example, are, "What is the role of contraception in bringing down the numbers of abortions?" "What are the acceptable limits of protests outside of clinics?" We find that people from the same side don't always have exactly the same opinion on everything. "Is there any validity to partial birth abortion?" When we dialogued about six months ago on partial birth abortion, there were very strong feelings expressed. I felt like we had broken through to a more profound level of real interaction—that before we were perhaps too worried that if we got upset, things would fall to pieces. We found that we were free, in the circle of friendship and trust we built, to be upset with each other. And we have terrific moderators who can just steer right through a storm. We ended up stronger for it.

We also have plenary sessions, at which we hand out a survey. It is a series of about 30 questions on various aspects of the larger abortion issue—contraception, men and women's relationships, the workplace. We ask people to answer the questions on a scale of one to five—What is your opinion on this statement; do you agree or disagree? Then we ask them to take it again, and answer it the way they think the typical person on the other side would answer it. We discover that we have huge misperceptions about people on the other side. We really misunderstand them. That's very clarifying.

Here's a typical question: "Is abortion an appropriate method of birth control?" Pro-lifers thought that pro-choicers would take a 3.4 position in favor of the statement. When they looked at the results, pro-choicers had given it a 2.0. That was eye-opening to pro-lifers. Another one: "Women and men are equal in value, rights, and human dignity." Pro-choicers thought that pro-lifers would give that a 3.8, but both sides gave it exactly the same score: 4.9. That's encouraging. Here are some statements about which the score is pretty much uniform: "Motherhood is one legitimate full-time career for women." "U.S. public policy should have as a major concern giving support to families raising children." "Women and men are equally capable and both should be encouraged to participate in public decision-making roles." Again, pro-choicers thought that pro-lifers would not agree with that, but they did.

This is an example of a mechanism that can help us to understand each other better. As I like to say, the point of common ground is to clear away misunderstanding so we can arrive at genuine disagreement. The reason for this is to be understood and to understand. It was painful to me, as a pro-lifer, to see my views caricatured and misunderstood, and healing to see a pro-choicer look me in the eye and say, "This is what you believe, isn't it?" And repeat it to me accurately, even though they still disagreed.

Naomi Wolf: I am not a long-time activist, as Frederica has been. My journey has been as a writer and as a feminist. I'd like to first sketch out what brought me to this awakening dialogue that has had a transformative effect on my life and my thinking. I'll also tell you about my personal journey through different kinds of rhetoric and advocacy that led me to a commitment to common ground approaches to national debate, even though I cannot claim with any certainty that I'm there yet. It's a daily struggle to keep to that higher ground.

I wrote an article called "Our Bodies, Our Souls" in the October 1995 issue of The New Republic. I was basically arguing, as a committed pro-choice feminist, that the pro-choice movement as a whole was in danger of losing not only the middle ground of support, but also any claim to moral high ground because we were advancing the argument for reproductive rights while pretending that there was no moral framework around the issue. We wanted to wish away some of the very uncomfortable moral questions raised by the issue of choosing abortion and making abortion safe and legal. Specifically, I felt that we should not have to dehumanize the fetus in order to humanize the dilemma and the terrible choice to have an abortion. It seemed to me that that was a challenge to the pro-choice movement, to advance the argument for reproductive rights on a morally sound basis, on a basis that acknowledged that there are degrees of moral commitment involved in the decision to have an abortion.

I am not a Christian—I was going to introduce myself as Naomi Wolf, writer, activist, and token Jew in the room. I think that my religious background gives me a place in the abortion debate that is useful because the pro-life, pro-choice discourse has often been framed from a Christian-secular perspective. What's missing is that many people from deep faith traditions, such as Buddhists and Jews, reach much more ambiguous positions from a committed spiritual perspective than, for instance, the perspective of the Catholic Church, which has often set the terms of the debate.

I'm much more optimistic about whether changing the way we talk about this can influence the nation. That article I wrote in '95 came out to howls of criticism from my side. And yet what I was articulating is not a novel position at all for many pro-choice women and men. It's the position that many of us hold, but is not made public very often. In the years following, I've seen a huge sea change in the way the abortion discussion is conducted. There's much more illumination than there used to be because of the work of people in common ground around the notion that people of good will coming from a deep faith perspective can reach different points of view, but can have an agenda of actual national policy to reduce the abortion rate.

I CAME OUT OF classical second-wave feminism. When I was in my 20s in the 1980s, I was inheriting a feminist frame that was a classic, not common ground, frame. What was wrong with this frame was not unique to feminism. It's something that any nationalist, religious, racial, or ethnic group can fall into. The frame is: "We are the enlightened. We need an enemy. This is a demon. This is the opposition. They mean us ill and we're embattled, we're beleaguered; we can only trust each other." This gives rise to all kinds of distorted thinking.

I remember writing my first book with the energy of righteous anger and a healthy amount of demonization and paranoid thinking that goes along with inheriting those kinds of distortions. I was staying with my uncle, who's a Buddhist Jew. He said at one point, "Naomi, do you really need this rage?" I said, "Yes, I need the anger, because how will I challenge injustice, fight for truth, and reach the mountaintop without my anger?" It was my fuel. He smiled that Buddhist smile and left me to it, hoping, I'm sure, that I would outgrow it. My second book, because I had moved a few inches up that path, looked back at my old, youthful distortions of thinking and was a criticism of that sort of us-them feminism. Fascinating to me, the more empathy and compassion I drew on in my work, the better the insights I reached, the more wisdom I have access to.

Another crucial plateau I reached happened when I was teaching a college course about political rhetoric. I was struck deeply at the difference between the rhetoric used by people like Pat Buchanan or Catherine McKinnon and that of Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The language of Martin Luther King is absolutely inclusive and transparent; there's no visible us and them, no visible enemy and insider. His method was always to address his opponents as if he were addressing the highest, most noble, most potential place in them. Of course, this is not true of the language of McKinnon and Buchanan. Both of them create a clear enemy, demonize the enemy, and position their audience as threatened, undermined, or almost annihilated by the enemy, and that creates cohesiveness within the group. But it also creates bad politics, bad empathy, little wisdom. I don't think it reaches the common ground solutions that we are trying to get to.

A final place in my journey happened when I began to receive mail from members of the religious pro-life movement after I wrote my article. This was very destabilizing to me—because I had had an identity for most of my professional life that was partly energized by fearing and hating members of the Religious Right and the pro-life movement, because I was certain that they feared and hated me and that they were anti-woman. To my shock and horror, I kept getting these compassionate, insightful, spiritually aware, and loving letters from these "monsters." One of them was from Frederica.

When you open yourself to the kinds of change that common ground creates, you lose aspects of your identity that you have been clinging to. I had parts of my ego stripped away from me. It's very humbling. I had to face the fact that I might have been wrong all of this time, and that people I felt united with in solidarity might be wrong. The other painful thing I had to face was that I owed an apology. I needed to ask forgiveness of the wrong I had done.

This is where one more principle about common ground thinking can work. I don't agree with Frederica about policy, but I'll remember for the rest of my life what happened when I apologized to the pro-life people in the room at a common ground conference. I thought I would lose everything by asking forgiveness and, of course—no surprise to you, big surprise to me—I gained a sense of freedom. I felt truly liberated in a way that all that rigid us-them liberationist rhetoric I had labored under all my life had never freed me.

Finally, I do want to end on a note of caution, and I'm speaking as a member of a religious minority. As much as I embrace and am delighted by what we all are doing here, the note of caution goes like this: Some of the most rigid thinking there can be comes from believing that God has told you 'it's just like this.' While we move ahead with our effort to discern what God's will might be for American society, it's very important for us to remember that we all hear God's will according to our distorted, mistaken human ability to hear. That will allow us to be open to the possibility that our opponent is also taking her or his effort full-step along the path, according to what he or she believes to be God's will.

FREDERICA MATHEWES-GREEN is a regular commentator on NPR and on the Odyssey television network. She is also a columnist for Christianity Today and the author of the recently published Real Choices: Listening to Women, Looking for Alternatives to Abortion. NAOMI WOLF is the author of three international bestsellers about women's issues and a political columnist for George magazine. Her latest book, Promiscuities, is about the degraded messages adolescent girls receive about their sexuality.

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