“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” –Ludwig Wittgenstein
For some people, diving into a conversation with someone across significant difference is a no-brainer – “hey, let’s go for it!” When it comes to LGBT-RC dialogue, this type of person needs little to no guidance or support…just an excuse to gab!
As discussed in the last chapter, however, for others this kind of a conversation feels downright crazy. For this kind of person, a little more structure and guidance could go a long way.
So what exactly do people need to feel more comfortable?
A tough question. I (Jacob) first started wondering this after watching a number of undergraduates struggling to participate in our liberal-conservative dialogue course at the University of Illinois. While many students got a lot out of the experience, for a subset of students at least, they seemed unable to comprehend that another person could have a rationality different than their own – literally “baffled” at the prospect.
It sometimes appeared as if, on a basic cognitive level, there simply wasn’t enough awareness of anything thoughtful on the other side to support a change in their underlying hostility. One of my dialogue mentors at Public Conversations Project (now Essential Partners), David Joseph, once told me that on especially difficult questions, most people can hardly grasp what the other side really thinks – let alone do so in a fair way.
Intrigued by this problem, we began experimenting with ways of unsettling exaggerated certainties through written materials designed specifically to (gently) introduce the possibility that someone holding a perspective that happens to diverge from our own could also be equally thoughtful and good-hearted.
Our first attempt at doing this was distilling down the key questions (and contrasting interpretations) from both sides in a community dispute between a land developer and some local residents in Farmington, Utah. In contrast to popular “myth-busting” campaigns that deliberately paint the other position as flawed and inferior, the idea was to fairly represent the strongest arguments and perspectives on both sides in a succinct way that could be easily digested and passed along.
What we came up with ended up being passed along by both the developer and the residents as a peace-making tool to help invoke empathy and explore the nuance of each other’s positions. As a way to spark curiosity and invite understanding-in-proxy, we’ve begun at the Village Square making similar summaries attempting to map questions, interpretations and disagreements at play in this conversation in America (see, for instance, “Ten Ways that Thoughtful, Good-hearted People Disagree about Race, Policing, Guns & Same-Sex Relationships & Gay Rights“). We’re creating similar documents about immigration, climate change, and other challenging conversations in America.
In parallel to this list of core disagreements, as mentioned in the last chapter, we’ve also been collecting areas of important common ground (see: Ten Areas of (Potential) Common Ground In the Conversation about Same-Sex Relationships).
Key questions. In everything we write, the aim has been the same: find ways of using written text to help “prime the pump” of collective understanding and ultimately predispose a more productive conversation. Toward this end, we’ve selected for purposes of this book certain questions that seem to be ‘fulcrums’ or ‘centers of gravity’ in the discourse. Each issue has been identified as a key question around which public opinion diverges considerably.
For each question, the contrasting responses are mapped out, with especially common interpretations and answers summarized briefly and illustrated with quotes and stories. The intent is simply to distill down key differences in a way that feels fair to both sides – juxtaposing the various ideas reflected in the larger discourse as best we can.
Following these summary illustrations, we provide by a few practical implications that appear to ensue from each interpretation relevant to the question.
By gathering key questions, main interpretations and associated interpretations, we offer our best “map” of the current conversation. By digging into competing narratives and elucidating nuances, we hope to open up the conversation space for anyone to participate. The aim is not so much to ‘establish the truth,’ as to cultivate space to better explore contrasting interpretations and narratives within which people shape their own lives and happiness.
Research basis. These documents arise from more than simply our own dialogue practice. Indeed, one of the foundations for this written material is an analysis of thousands of online comments and many other hundreds of articles. Here’s the quick backdrop story: When Proposition 8 happened, I (Jacob) was working on a qualitative research project with my gay research partner, Nathan Todd. Reading the papers the next day, I was blown away at the quality and power of online comments posted by thousands of citizens – subsequently spending hours over the next day downloading tens of thousands of them (happy conservatives, and angry liberals). In 2013 & 2015, I did the same thing following United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges (this time, happy liberals and angry conservatives). Out of this review of fascinating narrative contrasts, certain patterns began to stand out as crucial contours of the larger conversation.
To supplement this analysis, we draw here on original interviews with current or former Mormons who experience same-sex attraction, conducted by Kendall Wilcox, a dialogue lover and film-maker leading the Far Between project (leaning left) and Ty Mansfield, a family therapist and author leading the Voices of Hope project (leaning right). These interviews are referenced by “FB” or “VH” after a quotation.
Checks, balances and accountability. Like all human beings, each of us naturally writes from our own standpoint. Jacob is an openly conservative religious guy. Arthur is an openly gay Christian man.
During graduate school, Jacob started experimenting with a system of checks and balances in his own biases by writing virtually all of his 13 peer-reviewed papers with people who disagreed with him on some fundamental level – starting with Nathan Todd. To allow this same kind of cross-checking here, as mentioned in the introduction, we’ve personally invited review and critique from a small group of dialogue colleagues – telling them: “If you see anything in the writing that doesn’t fairly represent your experience or that of others you know, please let us know! If something doesn’t sit well with you, we want to hear from you!”
Special thanks to diverse contributors and reviewers on the left (Ann Pack, Christine Nelson-Gibby, Brooke Barton, Patricia Wickman, Megan Allen) and right (Casherie Bright, Jodie Palmer, Brandon Christensen). And once again, appreciations to Arthur Peña, in particular, for his contribution and influence on everything happening here (see Arthur’s bio and contact info here). Over the last year, his questions and critique of religious conservativism and his own life story has taught me more than almost any other conversation I’ve had.
Out of these relationships and connections, our hope is that the finished product reflects a fairness and balance unachievable by any one of us alone.
In crafting language and selecting examples, for instance, the authorship team has held a strong intention to represent and illustrate each position in the best possible light – avoiding the subtle (and inadvertent) tendency to frame views on the ‘other side’ in a way that makes them appear inferior. Rather than showcasing inflammatory or especially provocative lines, our aim has been to capture representative examples of thoughtful perspectives on both sides. In other words, we’ve looked for the BEST arguments from various perspectives sides.
Even with our best work, however, these guides are still just our best effort – reflecting very much a “work-in-progress.” Your feedback and suggestions, then, are super-welcome to help us further refine and improve the tools.
What we’re aiming for. As mentioned earlier, our aim is not to establish the truth, as much as to support a broader space where the truth can be openly explored together. By identifying key questions and various modal (common) positions, readers may come away quickly understanding the diverging options for understanding an issue. In this way, we hope these guides may be an aid to help people think more critically and figure out where they stand.
Compared to other aims, these admittedly are fairly limited intentions – setting a tone, providing some mind-stretching perspectives, and encouraging people to step into the “learning and sharing” mode kind of conversation (as the authors of Difficult Conversations put it).
Because of the passion and conviction running throughout the conversation, these aims will be experienced by some as hardly “modest.” Indeed, the idea that public discourse needs any broadening at all may seem inherently skewed and agenda’d. The common pattern is that those with the most power in a particular conversation are happy to keep public discussion the same – with minority voices incentivized to pursue a change. (In this case, who is ‘in power’ and who is ‘the minority voice’ vary depending on who you ask!)
More broadly, we do envision these guides as ‘shaking up’ dominant certainties enough to make room for a richer conversation. Even with someone taking a minute to look over a guide, we see the potential for neutralizing the subtle influence of the larger hostilities of public conversation – this, in a way that opens up the natural nuance and openness that can emerge between two curious human beings.
For all these reasons, we aspire for this effort to become a “go-to” series of dialogue guides available to those hungry for a more enriching public conversation – used in preparation for challenging discussion by classes, organizations and families.
In all this, we hope to make a small contribution to moving the conversation forward – encouraging in every way we can a more thoughtful, deepening conversation While not presuming to fully resolve any of these issues, we hope that a healthier collective exchange might foster a more peaceful coexistence between religious conservatives and the LGBT community – one that reaffirms space for both diverging personal convictions and authentic love across the deepest of differences.
To recap, here are the basic assumptions of our “mapping” and “infrastructure building:
That, at least, is our hope! And this is precisely what we are attempting to offer. This series of dialogue guides represents our best attempt at creating infrastructure to support a more productive national conversation.
 Our deliberate focus is on the questions and issues that represent legitimate interpretive differences. Obviously, where a matter has truly been settled (in the eyes of virtually everyone) – we’re not addressing it. Where the matter remains unsettled for at least a significant portion of one or both sides, however, we still explore it. The focus then centers on issues representing differences between both sides. In some cases, an issue may not be of equal importance to both sides – but if hugely important to one, it is represented here.
 If you don’t see a reference to a comment, it’s from one of the hundreds of newspaper comment strings we’ve analyzed for the book.