Posts Tagged ‘guns’

Guns, Changes of Mind, and the Cost of Dialogue

My opinion on government gun policy is starting to shift. That shift fills me with dread—and the reason, I think, may say a lot about why dialogue is such a hard sell.

Let’s start with my own biases. Temperamentally, I am as close to pacifist as you can get without actually being pacifist. Guns hold no appeal for me whatever (beyond the curiosity I have about pretty much everything). I grew up on Bambi. For most of my life, then, my thoughts on gun control were pretty much a default on the pro side.

But recent events have nudged me into more reflection. My experiments with gun dialogue (last month and in 2012) put me in contact with gun owners and their stories about why they value their guns, the enjoyment of pursuits associated with guns, the security they feel in owning a gun and knowing how to use it. Moreover, after pondering the Second Amendment, I can see how the standard gun owner’s interpretation may have some merit.

Bottom line: I can still support commonsense measures like background checks and waiting periods. But now, whenever cries to reduce gun ownership permeate the public square, I can’t quite join in—as much as my Bambi instinct still wants me to.

But this post is not about guns. It’s about why the shift scares me.

There are several reasons, but one towers above them all: some of the most important people in my social network—dear friends, immediate relatives, colleagues who might influence the course of my career—are vociferously anti-gun. I can think of a family member whose wisdom and love I would not do without…a colleague whose family has suffered several murders due to gun violence…a Catholic writer who shares many of my sensibilities but whose wrath grows with each mass shooting.

Will they abandon me now that I’m expressing a different opinion, even if just slightly different?

You might argue that it’s unlikely, and you’d probably be right. But in our current culture, friends and colleagues do part ways over disagreements like this. Consider the “harmonious” traditional family that fractures when a daughter comes out as gay, or good neighbors who find themselves on opposing sides when a casino comes to town. The notion that “if they abandon you over this, they weren’t real friends (or colleagues, or loved ones) anyway” is far too simplistic.

Now consider that I feel this dread strongly enough to hold my tongue around certain people—and I’m a dialogue person. How can I expect folks who are unfamiliar with dialogue to enter in when the risk is so high: when they might lose not only their basic convictions, but even their friends? How can those of us who care deeply about dialogue demonstrate that, in fact, the reward is worth the risk?


How Do You Come to Your Opinions?

Think of a controversial issue in the news. More likely than not, you’ve already formed opinions about it.

How did you come to those opinions?

The question keeps arising for me this month, thanks to conversations about the complex of issues surrounding violence, guns, terrorism, and Islam. Several of my “conversation partners” are people with whom I vehemently disagree; in a couple of cases their opinions are repugnant to me. If I had encountered their thoughts in passing—in a river of Facebook comments, in a tweet, in a casual remark—I might have dismissed them out of hand.

With one fellow in particular, however—an ardent anti-immigrationist who even questions the value of diversity for human community—the conversation has taken a different turn. The more he explains about his belief, the more I see how much thought he has put into it. He makes connections I never would have considered. (Who sees rigid controls on immigration as a justice issue for low-income people? He does.) He cites research. Some of his language implies that personal circumstances might fuel his ideas.

By instinct, I am a complete fruitcake on immigration. I think we should let ‘em all in. Everybody. Carte blanche. No exceptions. Or at least that should be our starting point. In that context, the conversation we’ve had has had a substantial effect. No, I am not persuaded to convert to this fellow’s opinions. But the dialogue with him has persuaded me that my conviction needs work. Perhaps a lot of work.

Seeing how he came to his opinions made the difference.

So what’s the takeaway here? Allow me to come at it in a roundabout way. It has to do, in a sense, with the power of stories.

The dialogue field is big on storytelling. When people tell their stories, we see their humanity. We can empathize with them. Storytelling takes dialogue away from the abstractions that dominate our media landscape and pushes it into context and nuance. We can start to see, in many cases, how a reasonable person might just arrive at the opinion that gives us the shivers.

What I’m wondering is whether how did you come to your opinions?—which is an invitation to tell another type of story—may also allow us to filter out the media noise.

Here’s what I mean. If I express an opinion that sounds ripped from the media headlines, and you ask how did you come to your opinion? it challenges me to probe deeper, to form and own an opinion that is more authentically mine. If I express an opinion with greater depth, your question how did you come to your opinion? encourages me to reveal that depth and (I hope) inspire you to reflect on it and respond in kind. If I’ve based my opinions on sources you find questionable, and you ask how did you come to your opinion? it allows us to go well beyond the issue at hand and into deeper questions of media and knowledge and trust.

Whatever the case, we begin to enter a dialogue and reflection that exposes our opinions to the thinking of our dialogue partner. That in turn can shape our opinions and, hopefully, bring them closer to the truth, or the heart of the matter. At the same time, we forge the type of connections that dialogue is famous for making.

Best of all, that simple question opens a door for us to leave those scripted catchphrases and simplistic media headlines far behind. We’re liberated from the “box” of those sound bites, which so often set the parameters of debate in the public square. Instead, the question moves us outside the box, and we van hear and think and feel for ourselves.

It might even be a good question for self-reflection. How do you come to your opinions? And how might this question help you make progress with that person who makes your blood boil?




Last Weekend’s Gun Dialogue

Several days after our latest experiment in gun dialogue, I find myself both more hopeful and less hopeful. Fortunately, more hopeful is winning.

Last week I posed a few basic ideas that, just maybe, every person on every side of the gun debate could agree on. If we could agree, we’d have some common ground, which often inspires at least the tolerance—and sometimes the empathy—required to explore thornier issues.

The ensuing dialogue (mostly on my Facebook feed) was robust, rarely on topic, and wildly fruitful. Here are some things that I heard, thought, was surprised by, etc.:

People listened to each other. There was some “Yes I hear you but [more of my position here]” going on—which doesn’t qualify as listening—but many folks at least tried to take in the views from commenters on the other side.

The resulting exchanges were enlightening. At one point, two folks debated the definition of militia (a key word in the Second Amendment) and what relevance it might have for today’s United States. I honestly had never considered that issue in any depth.

At another point, a gun owner objected to last week’s attempts at legislation (defeated in the Senate) to inhibit sales of guns to people on government terrorist watch lists. Her objection was that the criteria for inclusion on these watch lists is not transparent. Another commenter, who favored the legislation, suggested adding a paragraph to make the criteria transparent. If these two folks could figure out a solution across their very significant divides, why couldn’t the Senate?

There is a deep, widespread sense of fear among many people in the U.S. Millions of Americans believe that their government wants to confiscate their guns. Millions of Americans are now afraid of Muslims. It is very tempting, for those of us who gravitate toward the center or left of the political spectrum, to dismiss these leanings out of hand. I suggest we sit with them a while, listen to them more intently, see how we might address them.

This is not—not—to condone xenophobia. In the midst of the Facebook dialogue, I actually had to delete a post that advocated “banning Muslims” instead of “banning guns.” I will not have my Facebook feed associated with hatred.

But maybe there’s a distinction between fear and hatred that’s worth examining. I wonder if we can make space for people to explore and express their fears, groundless or not, while confronting the all-too-easy transition from fear to hostility to hatred. I wonder if that space might actually prevent the transition from occurring.

The problem of mass violence is much, much deeper than I’d thought. The more I read on this issue, the more I wonder whether any serious approach to reducing the number of mass shootings has to involve rethinking our society on a profound level. Maybe we have to, for instance, look at our very American propensity to violence. Maybe we have to consider how our long history of individualism has eroded the very community that might deter prospective shooters. Perhaps we have to ask why so many people feel so deeply alienated. And while I hate to sound grim, I don’t think U.S. society—or any society—is up to the task. Still…

Maybe we can take steps anyway. God bless my friends: when I expressed my despair in the above paragraph, they were quick to remind me of some very basic truths. We can’t change society, but we can change ourselves. Love is the answer. (Sound simplistic? If you’ve ever tried to live it, you know it’s not.) Maybe our task now is to imagine the baby steps we can take toward a more peaceful world.

This was, of course, one conversation on one blog/Facebook feed at one point in time. But if our little agglomeration of people can have this conversation, why not others? Why not people with the power to take the baby steps, and larger ones too? Why not?

Looking for Common Ground on the Gun Debate

When it comes to guns, what can we all agree on?

You may think this a fool’s question, especially if you’ve spent any time with the media (print, broadcast, social, or otherwise) in the past 48 hours. We have relived, yet again, a pattern that is not only tragic but disheartening. A horrific shooting takes place. Law enforcement tries to parse out exactly what happened. In the meantime, partisans on both ends of the gun debate begin to broadcast—loudly, in take-no-prisoners language—their well-worn arguments.

Many of us stay off Facebook for a few days.

Back in 2012, after the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, we ran a little experiment about the gun issue in this space as well as on Facebook. I asked people to respond to some honest, open questions in order to explore and express their own beliefs about guns. (If you weren’t part of the original conversation, take a look at the questions and see how you’d answer them.)

The stories we shared and heard were remarkable. One person wrote about the relatives she has lost to gun violence. Another spoke in almost spiritual terms about the joy of hunting.

Oddly, we came close to agreement on a couple of things. Background checks were good. Waiting periods were good. Best of all, we left the clichés behind and actually started to talk with one another.

Today, in the wake of what happened in San Bernardino, I want to try another little experiment. Let’s see if we can lay out a few things on which we all agree. It’s not as foolish as it looks; it just means we have to go back to basics. Waaaay back. Can we, for instance, agree to the following:

  1. These shootings are horrible. Obvious? Of course. But stay with it awhile. Allow yourself to feel that sense of horror and sadness that comes with each news flash. Then, when you’ve done that, know this: the person on the other side of the gun debate feels it too.
  2. We should keep weapons away from people who plan to use them in mass shootings. This makes yesterday’s Senate votes nearly incomprehensible. Whatever the reason for those votes, however, is this statement as self-evident as I think it is?
  3. It can be difficult—sometimes impossible—to tell a future mass shooter from anyone else. Taken together, these folks do what they do from a dizzying array of motives. Workplace dissatisfaction. Mental illness. A deep sense of exclusion from society’s benefits. Terrorism. No one-size-fits-all solution will fit all.
  4. It takes time to figure out what happened. How often, after a tragedy like the shooting in San Bernardino, do we hear a police chief answer questions with “that is still under investigation”? It can take days, even weeks, to nail down the whats and whys. That makes jumping to conclusions—and, more important, acting on those conclusions—perilous.

What do you think? Can we agree on all these?

If we can, several good things can happen. Our common reactions to the horror can foster empathy: they remind us that our adversaries are, first and foremost, human. Common ground inspires hope that maybe we can work together to find more common ground—or at least places where we can compromise. If people in power take these steps, they might just find enough space to collaborate on solutions and take action.

And action to prevent another shooting is what we so desperately need. I’m betting we can all agree on that.


Breaking Through to 201: Dialogue Beyond the Basics

Does this ever happen to you? You get involved in a new endeavor—a different line of work, an unusual hobby, a new practice in your faith tradition, whatever. You read about it, talk to people who’ve done it for years, attend conferences, email the “gurus” in the field, etc. After a while, you start hearing the same information over and over. So now you figure you’ve heard the basic parameters or, in the parlance of college-level courses, the 101.

Then you get deeper in—and you find that a lot of the 101 doesn’t work, or isn’t even accurate. You start craving 201.

I noticed this while seeking a publisher for my book. According to the 101, to get your book published you need an agent. To get an agent you need to send out queries and proposals. You will be rejected 99% of the time. But sales do happen. What you need, more than anything else—beyond the ability to write compellingly and (for nonfiction) a built-in audience—is perseverance.

I did this for quite a while and got nowhere. At some point, I reevaluated the parameters of my writing: my calling to write books, my goals in light of that calling, my age, my financial and career situation, etc., etc. Right around this time, an author who had read my Huffington Post blog offered to introduce me directly to her publisher, SkyLight Paths Publishing. The result has been a delightful author-publisher relationship that breaks many rules of the 101—but has worked very well for me.

What does this have to do with dialogue? The answer, for me, lies in the lessons I learned:

  • Push beyond the 101. For a great example, consider the current controversy over gun ownership. The 101, in this case, consists of the clichés and well-worn arguments that the various “sides” reiterate whenever the issue arises. But between “there is no reason whatever to own an assault rifle” and “guns don’t shoot people, people do,” there is a vast spectrum of nuance and complexity that an authentic dialogue could reveal. To reach across divides, to arrive together at a way forward, we must explore that spectrum. In the process, we will gain a clear-eyed, deeper view of where the 101 is correct—and where it’s not.
  • Talk to someone else. After getting nowhere with the 101, I talked with some authors who, I knew, had taken a dramatically different path. Their wisdom expanded my understanding of book publishing in a way I could not have imagined otherwise. To take this back to guns: how many advocates of stringent gun control have talked to residents of rural areas in which self-defense is the only viable option in the face of crime? How many gun owners have heard the stories of those whose lives have been devastated by gun violence?
  • Refine the questions. Maybe, when faced with the 101, I should have asked questions like How much perseverance is enough? How much audience do you need for what kind of book? What if I want to do this some other way?  Deeper dialogues, I suspect, come from deeper questions.

Have you had experiences like these—where it seemed impossible to break through the 101, but only the wisdom at the 201 level would satisfy? What did these experiences teach you? Please feel free to share here.

When a Dialogue on Guns Breaks Out—or Two or Three

Sometimes people inspire the hell out of me. That includes some of you over the past three weeks.

In my last post—shortly after the horrific shootings in Aurora, Colorado—I posed a few questions for people on both sides of the ongoing debate over gun ownership.  The public square was abuzz with many of the typical catchphrases and hostilities that typically pervade this debate. I was hoping that maybe these questions could spark a dialogue.

Boy, did they ever.

A small but dedicated group of people responded with the most thoughtful comments I’ve seen on the topic. One or two of them are involved in the field of dialogue and deliberation; the rest are people I know from other parts of my life. Most people restated their long-held positions, but at a level of detail and consideration that provided plenty of insight for me—and, I hope, anyone reading these comments.

Just in case you weren’t privy to these conversations, I want to share them with you. Take a look at the comments below. Then go to my Facebook page (the Timeline version) and scroll down or search the word questions or gun. Let me know if you can’t find it, and I’ll try to direct you to where it is. (Facebook technology sometimes eludes me.)

Thank you to those who have contributed. And believe me, it’s not too late. Please jump in.

Questions in My Mind About Dialogue and Guns

It has been some 30 hours since the horrific shootings in Aurora, Colorado. Even 2,000 miles away, the shock is still raw. I cannot imagine the suffering that the people involved must be enduring at this moment. To be sure, they are in my prayers.

During these mind-numbing 30 hours, people have given voice to the usual positions on gun control. I find this distressing—partly because of the volume and hostility behind these pronouncements, but much more because they do not begin to answer the questions deep beneath them.

Here are some of the questions that roll through my mind. Please understand that I am not asking them in a rhetorical fashion to defend one position or another; I truly want to know the answers. And if you have a position on guns, I invite you to post your answers and your thinking. I would only ask that you refrain from (a) restating tired positions and (b) demonizing the other side. Go deep.

That said…

For people who favor the unfettered right to bear arms:

  • Why is gun ownership important to you? How has it made your life better?
  • From your perspective, are some guns more dangerous than others? Do some guns have legitimate uses in a democratic society and others not?
  • For those who answered yes to the previous question: If a ban on very dangerous guns with no legitimate use could reduce incidence of violence, why would that be a bad idea?
  • Is there any connection in your mind between a culture of gun ownership in general and the incidence of violence? If so, how high would that incidence have to be for you to accept some limits on gun ownership?
  • Why do you consider background checks onerous?

For those who favor limits on gun ownership:

  • How do you feel about guns in general? Why?
  • How do you think about the apparent randomness of mass shootings?
  • What do you do with the fact that no screening procedure, no background check, and no limit on guns will eliminate the kinds of mass violence like that perpetrated last night?
  • Are there legitimate uses of guns? How would you ensure that people can use them legitimately?

I’m sure there are many other good questions, but now it’s your turn. Please. More than ever, we need to get somewhere on issues like these. And we can only get somewhere when we talk—and listen.

A Civil Letter to Sarah Palin

Marianne Williamson’s letter to Sarah Palin didn’t exactly make front-page news when it first came out. But it’s required reading for anyone who cares about dialogue.

Williamson, a spiritual teacher who, by her own admission, is not a conservative, wrote her letter when Palin was using the language of guns to encourage “taking aim” at her opponents. In theory, Williamson could have joined the popular chorus in mocking Palin mercilessly.

Instead, she tried to engage Palin. And the way she did it is enlightening.

Right from the start, Williamson admitted her position in the public square—both what separates her from Palin and, unusually, where they find common ground. “I don’t share your politics but I do share your country,” she wrote. “I am writing to you now as a fellow American and also as a woman who, like you, puts my spiritual journey above all else.” By asserting that common ground, she looked to build trust where none existed before.

Then she went one step further. Rather than diss Palin’s recent book from afar, she made the effort to read it. What a concept! Williamson found a lot to like and said so, establishing more solidarity. She also found a lot to dislike and said that too—in a respectful, civil manner.

Then she made her plea: a carefully reasoned argument for Palin to stop using gun metaphors in her public appearances.

I could describe the letter more, but check it out and you’ll see what I mean. If we could bring such honesty and gentleness to our own dialogues—if we could first seek out common ground and strive to build trust—we just might connect with our adversaries as never before. Part of building that trust involves absorbing, in depth, what “the other side” believes; in doing so, we show a respect that will come through in our dialogues.

Have you ever reached out to an adversary like this? How did you do it? What were the results? Do tell.