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A political odd couple's advice on finding common ground

Don't demonize your opponents or let them demonize you - ignorance of each other stops discourse

By Eugene F. Provenzo Jr., Jack Thompson / October 19, 2004


Neil simon's play, "The Odd Couple," is about two men who share an apartment and seem to have nothing in common. Yet despite their differences they develop an enduring friendship. The two of us are a bit like Mr. Simon's characters - seemingly diametrically opposed because of our politics, but ultimately closely aligned as friends and collaborators.

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We were brought together by CBS's "60 Minutes" program, which had been looking for experts to provide insight concerning the 1999 Columbine massacre - we're experts in the social impact of video games.

We suspect that the two of us were selected by the program because our obvious social and political differences would make good TV. Gene is a liberal Democrat with a strong interest in social justice, and Jack a Republican and Christian conservative. Gene is a university professor trained as a social scientist and humanist and is focused on research and reflection. Jack is an attorney focused on public interest law and activism.

But our common ground is a shared belief that first-person shooter video games are bad for our children, teaching them to act aggressively and providing them with efficient killing skills and romanticized and trivialized scenarios for killing in the real world.

By strange coincidence, we live down the street from each other.

Our first meeting took place over breakfast on neutral ground - a local bagel shop. We were cautious with each other. Jack expected Gene to consider him a right-wing lunatic, and Gene was afraid of being labeled a bleeding-heart liberal. But as we began to listen to one another, the stereotypes fell aside and we found that despite our differences, we had a great deal in common - concerns about the encroachment of big business on government and the gap between rich and poor, for example.

We discovered a mutual sense that there is something fundamentally wrong about the winner-take-all philosophy that seems to dominate American life and politics. Both of us felt that there isn't enough discussion in American society about the common good; that collaboration, the idea of working toward mutual goals despite differences of opinion, is almost unheard of; that most politics and policy debate is mean-spirited and intolerant (which was the chief reason we were guarded at first about opening up to each other).

Much as conservative William F. Buckley and liberal John Kenneth Galbraith famously became friends years before us, we've cautiously become friends and collaborators - collaborators not just on videogame policy, but also on issues such as the environment, race, and gender.

Our friends and colleagues seem unable to imagine how we tolerate each other's widely differing social and political values.

Jack, for example, is opposed to abortion while Gene believes that a woman should have the right to choose. But Jack's faith-based perspective on the issue doesn't preclude him from constructive conversation aimed at understanding Gene, whoJack has learned, through listening, is a person of goodwill. In carefully listening to each other we are forced to realize we have neither absolute nor complete answers and that other perspectives have validity. Even if we profoundly disagree on abortion, it doesn't preclude us from having a dialogue on this and other issues that may be as important or more important. Absolutist attitudes preclude democratic interaction.

We have different heroes. One of Jack's favorite figures in American history is the editor and anti-communist Whittaker Chambers.

At first, gene couldn't believe someone could consider him a hero. After hearing Jack talk about him, and doing some research on his own, Gene realized that Chambers was a much more interesting and complex figure than he had first thought. Gene's appreciation of Jack's heroes not only makes Jack more human, but brings into view what may be heroic about both Chambers and Jack.