A Personally Transformational Encounter of Left and Right
by Tom Atlee
see also: Polarization
On June 11, 2004 I was privileged to join in a fascinating meeting
of Left and Right organized by
Lets Talk America and the
Democacy in America Project. This unusual gathering was funded
by the visonary Fetzer Institute
and generously hosted at their wooded Seasons Retreat Center in
When we said our good-byes three days later, I knew my worldview
had been changed forever.
The event had been born in the newly emerging, deeply democratic
political space some are calling "the radical middle"
or "the radical center" - a space filled with creativity
and dialogue. Lets Talk America organizers had journeyed into that
common ground from their home territory on the Left, while the head
of the Democracy in America Project, Joseph McCormick, had arrived
there from his home base deep on the Right.
The Lets Talk America team included Vicki Robin, co-author of YOUR
MONEY OR YOUR LIFE and founder of the popular Conversation
Cafes; consultant Susan Partnow of The Compassionate Listening Project;
and a team of folks from UTNE Magazine and the Utne Institute
-- Leif Utne, Julie Ristau and Marian Moore. I'd known Vicki and
Susan for years. Leif, Julie and Marian are new friends, thanks
to this gathering.
I met Joseph McCormick when he organized the videotaping of the
remarkable November 2003 Rogue Valley
Wisdom Council in Medford, Oregon. Only a few years ago, he
was a military man and right-wing Republican politician in Georgia.
Now thoroughly disillusioned with the political battlefield, he
believes -- with almost religious fervor -- that our most important
task is to build an inclusive We the People. Toward that end he
advocates broad cross-boundary conversations (such as his own Democracy
in America Project, as well as Lets Talk America and the Public
Conversation Project) and the formation of official institutions
designed to clarify and promote the legitimate voice and will of
We the People (such as Wisdom
Councils and Citizen Deliberative Councils).
WHO ELSE ATTENDED
Before I say what happened and what I think it meant, I want to
tell you who was there, because this event was overwhelmingly about
people -- very different people. The organizers had invited leaders
of the liberal and progressive Left as well as some of Joseph's
longtime friends and associates on the Right.
People from MoveOn.org, ACLU, the AFL-CIO, Sierra Club and Rolling
Thunder (Jim Hightower's group) couldn't make it from the Left.
But a couple of former Clinton administration officials came --
Shirley Wilcher of Wilcher Global LLC and the National Congress
of Black Women, and Carl Fillichio of the Council for Excellence
in Government -- and a number of other folks who have roots in progressive
politics, like myself, Mark Satin of THE RADICAL MIDDLE
newsletter, and Michael Toms of New Dimensions Radio.
Among the pillars of the conservative movement who attended were
David Keene, Chair of the American Conservative Union (the largest
grassroots conservative organization in the U.S.); Bill Thomson,
National Field Director and a leading spokesperson for the Christian
Coalition; FBI veteran Gary Aldrich, founder of The Patrick Henry
Center for Individual Liberty (and author of UNLIMITED ACCESS);
and columnist and radio talk show host Bob Barr, former US Congressman
from Georgia and a board member for the National Rifle Association.
Other participants included Laura Chasin of the Public Conversation
Project, Lawry Chickering of Educate Girls Globally (and author
of BEYOND LEFT AND RIGHT), Joe Goldman of America Speaks,
Barbara Marx Hubbard of the Foundation for Conscious Evolution (and
author of CONSCIOUS EVOLUTION), Ethan Leib (author of DELIBERATIVE
DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA), Jeff Peters of We The People, Ginny
Sloan of the Constitution Project, Pat Spino of the Democracy in
America Project, Donna Wiesner of BrainTrain, Zoe Schonfeld of the
NY office of the Legal Aid Society, and Jeri Barr of Cobb Family
The conversations were facilitated by a team including Susan, Julie,
Marian and Mark Gerzon. Mark is Founder and President of the Mediators
Foundation and author of A HOUSE DIVIDED and the forthcoming
LEADERS WITHOUT BORDERS. In 1997 and 1999 Mark designed and
facilitated two major Bipartisan Congressional Retreats. His extensive
experience creating and supporting productive cross-boundary conversations
served us well.
I came to this weekend largely because of Joseph, the strong conservative
who had come to believe that dialogue and deliberation -- and, through
them, the emergence of an inclusive, dynamic We the People -- offer
better answers to our predicament than win/lose battles over positions
and candidates. His journey had brought him to the same place mine
had, but through the opposite door. I had tremendous respect for
him, but I couldn't relate to his Right-wing past at all. Even as
I joined him in our common dedication to dialogue, I couldn't quite
figure him out through the lens of my progressive analysis.
What I experienced before and during the weekend gave me a gut-level
understanding of how my own ideological righteousness could close
my mind and heart. Using Google, I researched the people who were
coming to the conversation. I read articles by the conservatives
and listened to their radio talk shows -- and I got triggered by
what they said. I reacted with anger, frustration and rejection
of who they were. I thought silent counterarguments and felt the
rise of adrenaline. Friends warned me to be careful -- or couldn't
even imagine going to talk with such people. The dialogic side of
me was despairing. I doubted I was up to the challenge. I knew I
should set aside my reactions and try to see these conservatives
as people, but the task seemed daunting. I was anxious, determined
to work hard to be open, and half expected the whole effort to be
So what happened? I had a remarkable time. Right at the start,
in small mixed breakout groups, we explored what America meant to
us when we were 12 years old -- and now. We told each other what
we cherished about America. I told my story of growing up in a progressive
activist family that sided with socialist revolutions and learned
all the bad things America did in the world -- and yet how I still
held on to the dream that America had a major positive role to play
in the world, a powerfully positive myth to live out for the benefit
of all humanity.
We explored our experiences of political difference. I heard a
conservative's story of speaking out in a public forum as a college
student. A radical progressive student had responded "When
the Revolution succeeds, your kind will be the first to be shot!"
The audience had cheered the radical, and this man had never forgotten
that. I could understand why. We went on to explore the psychological
and tribal dynamics of polarization, and what was lost and gained
by seeing others as the enemy and by feeling certain we were right
(subjects about which I will write more soon). We came to a place
where we didn't want to use those labels at all. We were searching
for some other ways to relate that had more positive possibility
I talked particularly with one conservative, learning that he,
too, was very concerned about the Patriot Act and the current administration's
global ambitions. He had other serious disagreements with the current
administration that he would never voice in public because of his
persona as a conservative opinion leader. He shared a fascinating
perspective on the history of the abortion issue, suggesting that
decades ago the old Dixiecrat Democrats used to favor abortion for
racist reasons, so many Left civil rights leaders were Pro-Life,
while Conservatives promoted the Pro-Choice position as a matter
of personal liberty. Republican encroachments in the Democratic
South combined with internal party politics, new prenatal science
and the rise of feminism ended up generating a reversal of those
stances. He felt many positions on both sides were being held more
solidly than was justified by the facts of the matter, and he was
intrigued with the possibility of randomly selected citizen deliberative
councils investigating important public issues.
It was immensely clarifying to me to find out what lived on the
other side of the wall I had built in my own perceptions. I could
feel how my determined ignorance was limiting my options, the options
of my fellow progressives and, most importantly, the options of
my entire country and the world.
I ended the weekend with great new friends and associates -- people
who'd started out identifying with the Left or Right but who were
now more intrigued with each other as people and with new possibilities
to make a difference together.
Perhaps my biggest insight was that if we stepped out of the Liberal/Conservative,
Left/Right dichotomies, we would find ourselves individually very
different and usefully unique in our perspectives, with vast areas
of workable common ground. The Great Political Dichotomies present
us with artificially polarized -- and polarizing -- differences
and little common ground. They lead us to gather together in our
tribes, preparing for war and totally losing sight of our actual
differences (as unique individuals), our many
similarities (offering many diverse possibilities
for alliances) and our real common ground (as human
beings with universal needs, living in communities, nations, and
a struggling world that require our shared attention).
I see my challenge now as nurturing an open curiosity, with less
fear, judgment and preconceptions in engaging with those I see as
conservative, as well as with everyone else. If they are spokespeople
for the Right -- as several of the attendees at this meeting were
-- I now know that their public statements are called forth by the
system we live in, as are the provocative statements of the progressive
Left or Democratic partisans. I now expect that, on meeting them,
I will probably find them different from whatever I may have concluded
from their media persona and their Google results. Similarly, if
they are ordinary people who happen to be conservative,
then I'll likely find, if I really listen to them, that I agree
with them more often than not -- and even where I don't agree with
them, I'll be able to understand where they're coming from, and
be able to see their very real humanity under all their opinions.
I may even come away wiser, with a more nuanced sense of the issues
we discussed and what they really mean in the big picture. As Lets
Talk America says, "What if what unites us is more than we
realize, and what divides us is less than we fear."
All that said, I'm not at the point of "loving everyone."
I realize there are extremists out there who would not tolerate
real dialogue or consider recognizing the humanity and legitimacy
of the Other. But I also realize that such people exist on BOTH
sides and are often leaders in creating polarization for their own
ends. In fact, extremists exist WHEREVER differences have coalesced
into "sides" and solidified into polarized stereotypes.
They are a natural part of polarized systems. BUT the ideologues
are seldom the majority -- or even a sizable minority -- of either
side. Most people are not that unapproachably righteous and dehumanizing.
However, the many people on all sides who could potentially hear
each other can only show up as the complex, unique, diverse human
beings they are, when they are provided with forums that support
them in relating to each other across political divides in respectful,
non-threatening ways. Such forums are hard to come by in today's
political culture. It is up to us to make them.
In the end I experienced a deep, gut-level transformation. I had
a profound personal shift away from Left/Right framings that was
comparable to my earlier shifts away from sexism and homophobia.
As with those other shifts, I still have impulses from my earlier
state, but I don't believe in them anymore. I am quite convinced
that the whole Left/Right frame is a trap, and that we are deeply
embedded in it in ways that are crippling us. It is also clear to
me that we have a long, hard slog ahead of us as we try to free
ourselves from this worldview, because the deep psychological and
tribal impulses driving it are extremely powerful.
What personally struck me most, and with tremendous irony, was
that I had bought into a frame of reference that prevents us from
achieving true collective wisdom. I was indoctrinated into this
framework by my culture, my family, and most groups I have been
part of. I accepted Left and Right as real without realizing that,
through my acceptance, I was collaborating with those who have conquered
whole societies by dividing them using these simple, compelling
ideological boxes. I enjoyed the benefits of righteous certainty
and was able -- even eager -- to project blame onto others. I dehumanized
the Other (in my case, those called "conservatives") in
ways that prevented me from engaging with them to discover their
fuller humanity and their reasoned viewpoints and, perhaps worst
of all, from seeing the systemic dynamics that were driving us apart
so we couldn't even imagine working together.
Taking lessons from my brothers and sisters across the political
spectrum, I can now say that my addiction to the Left/Right worldview
is partly my own responsibility (the conservative view) and partly
the responsibility of the social systems into which I was born and
socialized (the liberal view).
Just as I have earlier had to face the fact that cigarettes were
poisonous before I could stop smoking, I now believe that the Left/Right
model is most significantly a source of poison, rather than a source
of wisdom, pleasure or power. I believe it is poisoning my own thinking
and poisoning us all. Standing in the remnants of my Left perspective,
I now suspect that the Left/Right paradigm is killing us far more
effectively than the Right ever could. I would hope that some of
my colleagues on the Right feel similarly that the Left/Right paradigm
is more destructive than the Left. In any case, I personally want
to free myself from that poisonous frame of reference so I can better
do my work for the world.
So I am done with that. I will dedicate my life to changing the
social structures that uphold that polarized way of seeing the world.
I will promote and support well-facilitated opportunities to encounter
Others in creative, heartful, intelligent ways that empower us all
to take back our future and make it our own, together. I'm not sure
anything short of that will save us from the shadows we fear and
free us into more inclusive ways of thinking and living that are
filled to overflowing with possibilities.
PS: THE END IS THE BEGINNING
Sunday morning we sat in a large circle, with a candle and large
leaf representing Life in the center. The arrangement was a bit
strange for the conservatives among us, but they tolerated it with
quiet if somewhat appreciative amusement. We went arond the circle,
speaking of things we were going to do now that we had talked. One
of the Lets Talk America organizers offered a statement for us all
to comment on, revise and/or sign. She offered it very tentatively,
not wanting to put any pressure on anyone. Copies were passed around
for people to consider. Half a dozen people later in the circle,
one of our conservative participants leaned forward and said, with
a clear, strong intention: "I think we all should sign this
statement, just as it is, and we should do it now, this morning,
while we're here. I think this is important and we need to get on
with it." And so it was that a large calligraphed version was
passed around and we signed the following declaration:
We the people,
gathered at the Season's Conference Center, Kalamazoo, Michigan,
June 11-13, 2004, seeking to form a more perfect Union now in
21st Century America, declare:
* We cherish our country and the founding ideals and institutions
on which it stands.
* We respect our differences and recognize America needs every
one our viewpoints, ideas and passions – even those we don’t
agree with – to keep our democracy vital and alive.
* We recognize that meeting here and across our land for dialogues
across differences builds trust, understanding, respect and empowerment
- the conditions necessary for freedom and democracy to live in
us and around us.
* And therefore, each still grounded in our own considered views
(conscience and convictions), we commit ourselves and our communities
of interest to foster dialogue across the many divides in America,
in large and small groups, to build trust, insight and inspired
action towards the more perfect union we all desire.
* And we support the work of Let's Talk America and Democracy
in America Project - and other efforts - to bring Americans into
conversations that are inclusive, non-partisan, respectful and
open - guided by hosts and ground rules that allow all the voices
of 'We the People' to be heard.
May it be so.
For another perspective on this gathering, see
Mark Satin's article "At last, a movement that
would have us listen to and learn from each other"
"Conversation is a meeting of minds with
different memories and habits.
When minds meet, they don't just exchange facts:
they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications
engage in new trains of thought.
Conversation doesn't just reshuffle the cards:
it creates new cards."
The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country
into Red States and Blue States;
Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats.
But I've got news for them.
We worship an awesome God in the Blue States,
and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries
in the Red States.
We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends
in the Red States.
There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots
who supported it.
We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars
all of us defending the United States of America.
-- Illinois State Senator Barack Obama
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