A Depolarizing Story
I was a teacher at an uncommon high school that allowed me to teach Ethics in the form of discussions. On this day, I was facilitating a conversation about abortion. I was ready for war to break out among my students. I had already discovered that they were almost equally divided between pro-choice and pro-life and there were some smart students who were prepared for battle.
I wondered how I could keep myself from being fired when these students descended from arguments to fights outside the classroom. I knew their parents were divided and I was not confident that the administration would protect me if things got ugly.
I decided to start the discussion in silence with a raising of hands to discover some information and beliefs we might not make room for when things got tense.
I tried to start slowly; to remind the students of some simple truths through questions like the following:
Do you care about your fellow students in this room?
Is it important to treat each other with respect no matter what our differences?
As hands were raised in affirmation or as holdouts were elbowed or scowled at by friends, the tension in the room went down a little - but it was not enough.
The elephant in the room had to come out and be harnessed but I didn’t know how that would happen.
As I asked people to raise their hands for who was pro-life and who was pro-choice, whatever was gained by the first questions was lost as zeal and anger came through the silence in the form of grunts, rapidly raised hands, and glares.
I asked a few more neutral questions that did not reign in the boiling tension.
And then a question came up that I thought was innocuous but ended up being a big deal.
“Who in the room would like to see the numbers of abortions in our country go up?”
No hands were raised.
One of the pro-life student leaders couldn’t stay silent anymore.
“That’s a lie! You pro-choice people want to kill babies!”
A pro-choice student tried to sound calm and collected through a jaw that clenched between words, “We just want women to have rights over their own bodies.”
I quickly tried to bring it back to the feeling I felt when the class was surprisingly unified.
“Wait a moment. Let’s check what we experienced a moment ago. I will ask the question a slightly different way and let’s see where we stand.
Would we all want the number of abortions in our country to go down as long as women were truly respected as it occurred?”
This time all the hands went up but there was disbelief muttered around the room.
“I think we may have found something important. We could easily get tangled up again on how such a task would be done. We already have organizations that tackle this issue in their separate ways. But what if we attempt the almost unthinkable right now – what if we try to both honor women and reduce abortions at the same time. Could that be done? Don’t allow yourselves to accuse and divide. I want you to form groups that are mixed with pro-choice and pro-life people and see if BOTH are honored by whatever solutions you propose.”
The tension in the room began to shift. The same energy that was prepped for fighting was now taking a new form. There was surprise, laugher, intensity, and grief but it was aimed at something new. I saw new perspective forming in front of me – the possibility that what each side was holding could be shared and respected as valuable and only a portion of the whole. This humility and dignity side by side, lead to new trust, new openness and some lovely practical ideas that I would love to see realized in the world. (perhaps that will be a good topic for a later time)
This kind of constructive dialogue is possible even in our polarized world.
I long for it and invite it.