Opinion: Public Dialogue is the Bridge


Russell Shorto’s article “ What’s the movement to outlaw gay marriage really about” drew a great deal of commentary from polarized positions. The conservative websites intoned that the New York Times must be concerned about something other than marriage, namely criticizing Christian thought, and inferred that the paper continues to be a mouthpiece for the liberal left. The gay and lesbian sites continued to support the civil rights of gay and lesbian couples to have equal opportunity when it comes to lifelong partnership and legal decisions.

In reading these various opinions, one might wonder from where the impetus for such protracted pursuit arises. The Christian conservative movement is pouring the kind of energy into this battle that ordinarily derives from a familial insult. I would like to pose the position here that they need to be heard in a different way in order for them to move on. Historically, psychologists and family therapists have rarely weighed in on political commentary, for reasons ranging from professional neutrality to individual comfort levels with a public persona.

However, the time has come to shine a light on the recesses of the tunnel that connects past with present. From a psychological perspective, the battles that sustain themselves the longest are the ones that have cut the deepest in terms of expectations, hopes and disappointments. There is no doubt that we are a species that responds to attack and foments conflict. The Christian conservatives who are engaged in this movement hold strong beliefs about what they are doing. They are working to implement legal safeguards to uphold those beliefs. The gay and lesbian population is responding as a minority group under attack understandably would, by attempting to hold their ground, advocate for their legal rights, and defend their position to receive equal respect as human beings. As long as groups such as these are locked in a magnetized position that continues to repel each other, there will be little movement.

The field of public dialogue offers a means of communication that can bridge the current divide between gay rights supporters and their opposition, between the red and the blue, the white and the black, and those who are well versed in this practice need to be called upon now. No one is disputing that the New York Times is liberal, or that Christian activists want to outlaw gay marriage. This battle is being fought in the courtrooms, and in the media, and both forms of interaction have their merits. Ideally, our legal system offers protection of rights and mediation, and our media provides us with necessary information. However, our segregated polarized society needs to add public dialogue to its list of tools in moving forward towards a more just humane society. Facilitated public dialogue, such as that provided by The Public Conversations Project and many others, offers the opportunity to meet on a different playing field. It utilizes the skills of those who successfully negotiate interpersonal conflicts, who understand the wellspring from which our addiction to power and original hurt springs. As the widely quoted physicist David Bohm speculated, “if we were able to share meanings freely, without a compulsive urge to impose our view or to conform to the views of others without distortion or deception, this would constitute a real revolution of culture”. Creating a space where we can acknowledge that which we do not know, suspend assumptions, and listen in an unbridled fashion is the task before us now. Government, non-government, and civil society sectors must join together in forming that space. The question is, what must we give up in order to listen. And what will be gained.


Adrienne Dessel, LCSW
University of Tennessee College of Social Work
Dialogue and Diversity Consulting