Close encounters with the other side

Distressed by polarized politics, some Americans try a kitchen-table approach to discourse

Joplin, Mo., sits a full 1,118 miles west of Washington, D.C., but when it comes to politics in this election season, the partisan tension of the Beltway feels right next door.

Folks brave enough to display either presidential candidate's colors have had to deal with stolen yard signs, a smashed windshield, and many a mean glare in the grocery store, according to John Kerry organizer Judith Wynhausen of Joplin.

The unspoken bitterness became so troubling that in late September she took a step shocking to both sides - she opened her living room as a place where everyone in the neighborhood could talk politics.

"I had friends say to me, 'Why would you want to do that?' " Mrs. Wynhausen says. "One man said, 'I don't need to be lectured.' ... [But] as long as we just stay in our own corner, talking to people who agree with us, we're not going to learn anything."

What happened that September night, as eight strangers broke a thick layer of partisan ice, is far from ordinary in today's America, split by war, unhealed wounds, and conflicting visions of the good society. Yet it is part of efforts from coast to coast to convene conversations with hopes of satisfying deep urges not only to get along but also to get things done.

A few examples:

• A project known as Let's Talk America poses discussion guidelines and encourages households to sign up online to host a neighborhood discussion. Some of these take place at the more than 50 "conversation cafes" nationwide that hold regular topical discussions among strangers over coffee.

• Membership in the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation has grown from 50 to 300 over the past two years.

• In 2005, people who watch TV and listen to radio will hear interviewees use techniques developed through training from the "Both/And" initiative of the Mainstream Media Project and the Harvard Global Negotiation Project. It teaches members of the broadcast media to seek a "third side" beyond current impasses.

As strife escalates in the run-up to Election Day, proponents of the dialogue ment insist the stakes have climbed sky-high. If opponents get even more polarized over time, activists caution, major problems will go unsolved, violence could ensue, and quality of life across the board will decline.

"We'll create a world that no one will want to live in," says Mark Sommer, executive director of the Mainstream Media Project, a nonprofit public education effort in Arcata, Calif. "The situation will be horrific.... It's finally the right moment" for new methods in which participants aren't wedded from the start to a particular outcome.

Hopeful seers in the movement claim a set of core principles. They want opponents to identify what lies at the heart of the conflict. They value others' input when seeking solutions. They hold fast to their beliefs, but they also believe the best answers are discerned collectively in diverse settings.

Challenges to these premises arise, however, especially from people inclined to trust in experts to chart the best course for the whole group. For some, the idea of depending on newcomers or outsiders can seem downright counterproductive.

Post-Sept. 11 America resembles many other societies that have been attacked, found University of Virginia psychiatrist emeritus Vamik Volkan when researching his new book, "Blind Trust: Large Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror." The nation is trying to purify and restore itself, he says, but competing factions hotly espouse opposite methods for doing so.

Sept. 11, 2001 "was a shock. It was humiliation. You had to do something about it," Dr. Volkan says. "America has regressed to a purification ritual ... but the whole society is developing its own rituals. This is why it's very hard to amend these rituals."

One side, Volkan argues, is rallying around the president to root out outsiders who might pose another terrorist threat. Others aim to purge the nation of its fear by embracing a spectrum of outsiders in what amounts to a public display of confidence.

The majority on both sides has little use for the other, Volkan says, although a minority tiptoes into dialogue with the other side, either because they "have not regressed" or because they still hope to persuade someone.

Wynhausen, who is planning another discussion this Friday at her home in Joplin, counts herself in the latter category.

"Do I have an ulterior motive? Yeah, I admit I do," she says. "My hope is that if we discuss the issues, someone might change their mind and vote for Kerry."

Lee March plans to be there, but he harbors no plans either to convert or to be converted. A Liibertarian, Mr. March intends to vote for George W. Bush because he feels just one regret regarding Iraq: "I just wish we'd gone over there sooner."

But creating dialogue with neighbors ranks as another priority for him.

"What's been lost is an awareness of other people's viewpoints and emotions," March says. "It's important to have a community you can lean on when you lose somebody and at other times of crisis."

What the Joplin group found, according to March and Wynhausen, was a set of common concerns for the direction the nation is heading, for a more peaceful world, and for economic prosperity.

"There will always be two extremes who stay and fight, but the majority of people get burnt out on it and see it's not getting them where they want to go," says Paul Alexander, director of the Institute on the Common Good at Regis University in Denver. "You do need to reach a crisis point.... Then if people see that they can't win, there's more of a likelihood that they'll come together and say, 'Can I win at least a little bit?' "

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