Changing Minds: A Story

In our earlier post on "dealing with extremists," we promised a story of a productive, engaged conversation between folks that might see each other as beyond the pale.

This story is about people that started with very different views on gay marriage. Same-sex marriage seems to many an irreconcilable debate based on fundamentally incompatible, deeply-held values. Frequently, people with strong feelings about gay marriage are just baffled by the opinions of those that disagree with them. That's how this story started.

One day, two friends who disagreed pretty fiercely on gay marriage decided to finally sit down over a beer and figure out how to not get irritable with each other every time the topic came up (this was the early 2010s, so it came up frequently).

They each explored the other's position with curiosity and without judgment. They knew that the other was a reasonable person, a smart person: this understanding helped them to have the patience and goodwill necessary to assume the best of each other, rather than the worst.

During this exploration, they found out a few things about each other:

  • The supporter of gay marriage was largely concerned with making sure that gay couples had the capacity to combine their finances, be next of kin, sign legal documents together, etc. Not having marriage licenses was preventing this, and it was unfair to those individuals. This person believes that they had a right to those legal structures and benefits, just like straight couples.
  • The opponent of gay marriage was frustrated that the government seemed to be imposing a new concept onto marriage: in their eyes, marriage had been fundamentally about raising a family, and by expanding marriage licenses in the name of "love," the government was inadvertently using its authority to threaten the sanctity of family. A further exploration found that this person was particularly worried about the decline in the number of children raised by two parents (rather than one), and worried that this new "sanction" from the government would further degrade the fabric of family.

You may or may not agree with either of these arguments. That's alright. 

What this conversation was able to do was help the two of them reach an understanding of each other's position: even without agreeing, both were able to see that there were well-intentioned concerns behind their positions. 

They found that they really both agreed with the core values behind their positions. Neither wanted to deny a long-term partnership the ability to share a mortgage, or speak for the other in the hospital, or to become next of kin. Both want children to be raised with the best opportunities and a strong, loving family. 

Both ended up also agreeing that they thought it wasn't the government's place to grant any spiritual sanctity or not to someone's relationship. This agreement was key: both agreed that the government should ultimately be giving out contracts of a civil--not religious--nature. The religious commitments should occur in religious institutions.

By these realizations, both were able to see that they could support civil unions--for everyone. They disagreed on whether the word "marriage" must be a religious term, but both found that nobody's values were threatened by the idea of everyone getting civil unions from the government, and then marriages--or whatever else they wanted to call it--from religious institutions.

It was a great, productive conversation that drove a lot of mutual understanding and bolstered their mutual confidence that they could work through and learn from disagreements in the future.

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Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.