The Wisdom Page 


Dialogue Instead of Debate: Cutting Through
Ideological Polarization

by Copthorne Macdonald

Left vs. Right. Liberal vs. Conservative. Our way vs. Your way. Us vs. Them. It fills the airwaves and pervades our political institutions. But does this ideology-directed verbal bashing accomplish anything worthwhile? Does it move us forward as a society? Perhaps most importantly: Is it to some extent an artificial division that serves the ends of politicians and the controversy-seeking media but does not serve the ends of ordinary people nor reflect their deepest values?

In some places, and regarding some issues, the polarization has become extreme. Hunkering down in our camps of like-minded people, throwing barbs at the other side, is not going to allow us to solve the very serious problems that we all share. We've got to find ways to defuse, depolarize, and start putting our heads together again. Several organizations are actively exploring and promoting this idea. The basic approach is simple. We simply set our ideologies aside, and engage in respectful conversation. In a spirit of collaborative inquiry and mutual respect, we talk - and especially we listen - with the objective of understanding each other's concerns and values.

In June of 2004, two organizations interested in using dialogue to solve the polarization problem — Let's Talk America and the Democracy in America Project — co-hosted a gathering at the Fetzer Institute. Attending were two dozen "thought leaders" of left, right, middle, religious, and secular persuasions. For two and a half days they listened to each other's concerns, and when the process concluded, all felt moved to sign a declaration that expressed mutual respect for differences of viewpoint, and their commitment "to foster dialogue across the many divides in America, in large and small groups, to build trust, insight, and inspired action toward the more perfect union we all desire." Two of the participants have written about the event and their reactions to it. Check out the report by Mark Satin and the one by Tom Atlee.

If transcending polarization through dialogue is an issue that interests you, there are several programs you might want to learn more about:

Conversation Cafes — "Our purpose is to invite EVERYONE to connect in conversations that matter. In other words, we see the possibility of creating a culture of conversation that could transform our world.... At Conversation Cafés, we will learn together how to create a culture of conversation-which is a culture of intelligence, peace, and political awareness."

Public Conversations Project — "Our Mission: To foster a more inclusive, empathetic and collaborative society by promoting constructive conversations and relationships among those who have differing values, world views, and positions about divisive public issues."

The World Café — "A Café Conversation is a creative process for leading collaborative dialogue, sharing knowledge and creating possibilities for action in groups of all sizes."

Citizen Conversation, Dialogue, Deliberation and Reflection (CCDDR) Program — This is a project of the Co-Intelligence Institute, the purpose of which is "To catalyze a movement which recognizes and establishes citizen conversation, dialogue, deliberation and reflection (CCDDR) as a central factor in the life, well-being, peace, governance, intelligence and survival of communities, regions, states, nations and the world."

Democracy in America Project — This group is planning "three day civic dialogue events [in 2006 and 2008] consisting of small and large group facilitated and un-facilitated sessions. The first day and a half will consist of processes that help create an atmosphere of trust and cooperation among diverse people. The second day and a half will create a focused outcome -- a Declaration from this microcosm of America to America at large."

Institute for 21st Century Agoras — "is a volunteer-driven organization dedicated to vigorous democracy on the model of that practiced in the agoras of ancient Greece. It employs Co-Laboratories of Democracy that enable civil dialogue in complex situations." The Co-Laboratories are discussed at, and click here for information about the book, How People Harness Their Collective Wisdom and Power to Construct the Future in Co-Laboratories of Democracy.