Disarming Controversy Through Common Ground Thinking

Disarming Conflict Through
Common Ground Thinking

By Wayne Jacobsen

The following text is the Introduction to Fastback #515 published by the Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation. The entire booklet may be ordered from their website. Use the ‘search’ button in their Publication Archives and use ‘Jacobsen’ in the Author/Speaker Last Name search field. Cost is $4.00 plus shipping for this 45 page booklet.

When World Views Collide

Conflict erupted in a medium-sized school district in San Diego County, California, when the school board changed its personnel policies. The new policy conformed to a state law that added sexual orientation to the existing prohibitions anti-discrimination laws for public schools. The town long had been politically and socially conservative; but an influx of new residents brought a wider spectrum of religious and political views.

The district assembled a task force of 30 concerned parents, teachers, and administrators to tackle one of the most controversial worldview conflicts in our society—how to deal with sexual orientation. Half hoped the day had come when those teachers and students who were gay and lesbian, or were perceived to be so, would be fully accepted. Half were afraid this new policy would force the school to celebrate gay pride activities or in other ways undermine the moral values they taught their children.

This is ground zero, where opposing convictions collide as people seek to shape society according to their worldview. The animosity and disrespect that often result has given rise to the popular notion that civilized people do not discuss religion or politics even with their best friends. Fortunately that old adage has proven to be misguided.

When I was introduced to the task force that evening the tension in the room was suffocating. People sized me up to determine which ‘side’ I was on, mistakenly assuming I was going to arbitrate the conflict.

“We’ll be done this evening,” I began, “when 90% of us agree on a policy.”

I enjoy the shocked looks I get when I say something like that. The participants were poised for battle in hopes of gaining a simple majority in order to get their way and that statement knocked them off balance. They slowly realized that this was not politics as usual. As it sunk in heads turned, faces twisted in confusion. “Did I hear him right?” “Is he kidding?” “Ninety percent of us won’t agree on anything!”

Finally they realize that would not scream worn-out rhetoric at each other, but would do the hardest work that our democratic republic invites us to do: to take each other’s worldview seriously and provide a fair environment in which those differences can flourish. We talked for five hours that night about religion and politics. What began in rancorous debate ended with a 29 to 2 vote on a policy recommendation to the school board. We didn’t change anyone’s position on that issue in so brief a time. What our organization, BridgeBuilders, did, in concert with the First Amendment Center was reframe the issue in a way that would allow people to agree on a common good that would respect their differences.

“Human beings are perhaps never more frightening than when they are convinced beyond doubt that they are right,” observed Laurens van der Post a journalist who stood against apartheid in the early 20th Century in South Africa. This is why worldview conflicts prove to be so intractable. A worldview is not simply a preference, but the lens by which we view the world and out place in it.

Worldviews often result from intentional choices to embrace a belief system as truth. Obviously religious faith can be a major component of someone’s worldview, but worldviews also are formed by family, history, science, atheism, humanism, materialism or other philosophies. Some hold a less intentional worldview resulting from the amalgam of their life experiences and popular wisdom. You can recognize someone’s worldview when they appeal to matters of conscience, sincere beliefs or deeply held convictions.

Our worldview determines what we value, informs our sense of morality, referees our perception of truth and guides our decisions. Worldviews can motivate people to act for a higher good even at great sacrifice and they do not yield to opposition even against overwhelming odds. The dark side to this of course is that the greatest atrocities and most enduring conflicts of history have been generated, at least in part, by the deep differences engendered by competing worldviews. Efforts to construct peace are constantly thwarted because those involved cannot find enough common ground on which to build it. Our angriest debates over the last 40 years have ensued when people felt their deeply held beliefs were being challenged, ignored or excluded. Worldview conflicts leave communities polarized in anger and paralyzed by mistrust.

Most of those who gathered that evening in San Diego County knew only how strongly they felt about the issue and that any accommodation with their opponents seemed unthinkable. They came to convince, not to compromise. Even the district administrators who courageously organized this task force feared the evening would degenerate into a fruitless shouting match. They had called me repeatedly over the previous weeks seeking assurances that this meeting would not tear their community apart. Only the facilitators of the discussion had any hope that a solution was possible.

As we began, I understood those administrators’ fears. After more than an hour of angry and intense debate, one participant threw up her hands in frustration, “See I told you we have no common ground!” Participants around that table nodded their agreement. But we had hardly begun.

The facilitators helped them see that some issues are too important to be decided by a simple majority. A narrow victory would be overturned by a small shift in the balance of power. People do not abandon claims of conscience simply because the majority tells them to do so. Those who feel their worldviews are being ignored or disparaged will seek alternatives for their child’s education.

With the historical forces that have converged on this generation, it is more important than ever that we cultivate a common ground that can treat competing worldviews fairly. If public education is going to survive in our increasingly diverse society we need a proven method to encourage diverse groups to cooperate for a common good without having to compromise their deepest convictions.

Table of Contents
for the Remainder of the Fastback:

What Happened to our Common Ground?
The First common Ground Agreements

Common Ground for the 21st Century
The Common Ground Framework
Religious Liberty Rules
Getting All Sides to the Table

Components of a Common Ground Environment
Protect the Common Good
Focus on Fairness
Educate, Not Indoctrinate
Demonstrate Mutual Respect
Build Consensus, Not Coalitions

Cultivating the Common Ground
Strategies for Avoiding Conflicts
Strategies Once the Battle Rages

A Time for Statesmanship


© Copyright 2003 by Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation and Used by Permission

The entire booklet may be ordered from their website. Use the ‘search’ button in their Publication Archives and use ‘Jacobsen’ in the Author/Speaker Last Name search field. Cost is $4.00 plus shipping for this 45 page booklet.

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