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
CORAL GABLES, FL. — 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.
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.
While he still doesn't admire Chambers the way Jack does, Gene understands some of the things that Jack finds admirable about him.
We both look forward to getting together and the intellectual intrigue of exploring each others' opinions. Our discussions tend to be more interesting than the ones we have with friends and colleagues from our own ideological niches.
We talk a lot.
And we learn.
We've come to believe that the political spectrum is something of a myth - artificially created to serve political rather than social and democratic purposes.
We're more interested in our common ground than in our differences, and have benefited from each other's insights and different points of view because it forces us to test our own assumptions. By talking with each other, we allow ourselves the potential to be persuaded.
We both love our country, which is common ground worth occupying together.
If you're uncomfortable in the din of this uncivil political season, we have a suggestion: Don't demonize your opponents or let them demonize you - ignorance of one another, by definition, stops democratic discourse. Winning is no victory if we destroy all sense of community and concern for the common good.
Americans love to talk about the nation's historic tradition of tolerance and compromise. But as a people, they seem less caring and less tolerant than their rhetoric suggests.
Instead of isolating themselves, Americans would do well to listen to some of one another's TV newscasts and radio stations, and to read a range of newspaper and magazine articles. Conservative radio commentators such as Rush Limbaugh talk largely to the converted, as does a liberal commentator like Randi Rhodes at the other end of the political spectrum. While we might agree in principle with some of what they say, they stop the discourse.
The public square ought to be a venue in which the truth is sought, rather than opponents bloodied for sport. Talking about our common concerns first and our differences second keeps discourse going.
In our case, we believe we've created an effective and meaningful dialogue about one area of common interest between us - video games and the needs of our children. That point of earnest contact creates understanding on a range of issues we might not agree on.
Similarly, Americans might be more productive in addressing the pressing issues of our time if healthy discourse were allowed. No one, for example, can argue that the war in Iraq, the crisis in healthcare and insurance, the growing disparity between haves and have-nots, the threat of terrorism, or the increasing deterioration of the natural environment are issues that do not affect us all.
If you are really concerned about what is happening in American society, if you are really worried about our direction and purpose as a nation, we invite you to engage yourself in dialogues and discussions with people who are fundamentally different from you - or at least appear to be.
Surrounding yourself only with like-minded individuals is ultimately an isolating experience.
We suggest that you reach beyond your own ideological clique and talk to someone who truly thinks differently from you. In the common ground that you'll almost certainly find with others will be the issues that you can potentially take action on together to help create a better nation.
• Eugene F. Provenzo Jr. is a professor in the social and cultural foundations of education at the University of Miami. Jack Thompson is a public interest lawyer. They are collaborating on a book, 'Public Nuisance,' which provides techniques for the average citizen to become more politically and socially active.