Why can’t we sit across the table from our political adversaries? Why is it so difficult to have a conversation about our differences? These questions often reveal more about those who pose them than those who answer them.
As queer religious liberty advocates, we’d like to ask in return: Have you ever been encouraged to collaborate with someone who would go on to run a congressional campaign premised on the idea that you and your loved ones want to abuse children? We have. Have you ever been asked to work closely with a professor who would later launch a Twitter campaign to revoke your right to marry? We have. Have you ever been told you should aspire to share a stage with someone who leads an organization that actively funds efforts to criminalize members of your community? We have.
For those advocating against injustice, the act of sitting down at the table with someone who smiles at you now and sneers at you later is profoundly painful. It sows self-doubt. It sticks with you for years. It can feel like a betrayal to yourself and to your community.
Concerns about what your community might think if you share coffee with an adversary are not simply ego-driven fears about performing “wokeness.” Being part of a collective movement requires trust and collaboration. You risk losing the trust and respect of your peers if you take actions that might reasonably be perceived as downplaying or ignoring the harm perpetrated against more vulnerable members of your community. As part of the collective, you are — and should be — accountable to others.
We also understand why it might be so much easier to treat those you disagree with as two-dimensional caricatures rather than three-dimensional, complex humans. Now that the skirmishes of the culture wars have become all-out battles — seemingly unchecked by any standards of honesty or decency — it’s easier to fight if you can convince yourself your opponents are wicked through and through. The stark categories of good and evil are simple and comforting.
We recognize these reasons to evade dialogue with our opponents are real, compelling, and obvious. Our rights are under attack. We must act urgently. We cannot be complacent. And what will come of dialogue with a political adversary except complacency?
"COLLABORATING ALONGSIDE THOSE WITH DEEP DIFFERENCES IS TAXING AND PRETENDING OTHERWISE SIMPLY REVEALS YOUR PRIVILEGED DISTANCE FROM THE POTENTIAL OF HARM."
We also recognize that society incentivizes us to think this way. From social media companies that profit from attention-grabbing polemics, to a political system in which the powerful benefit from appeals to the furthest margins of their parties, dehumanizing the opposition is not only emotionally enticing but politically and economically rewarding.
And yet, despite all of this, only by sitting down and being in relationship with others does genuine change occur.
Celebrated grassroots organizer Marshall Ganz centers relationship building in his model of change, but makes a clear distinction between mobilizing a community for a single action and cultivating sustainable relationships grounded in shared values. Real change, he insists, only happens with the latter.
History agrees. Time and time again, we see the most successful social movements are those grounded in diverse coalitions. Reaching across lines is a winning strategy. Power is built not only by uplifting dependable voices within a group, but also by convincing folks on or just outside of the margins they have a place within the community.
We cannot simply preach to the choir; we must also robe, encourage, and write parts for new choristers.
Of course, easier said than done. Sitting down with someone with different views can be personally difficult if not actively painful, and rarely do both parties feel equal measures of pain. For those holding historically marginalized identities, reaching across the aisle means accepting the possibility — and often reality — of confronting dehumanizing rhetoric.
Even the most well-intentioned collaborators can hurt others in the process of unlearning previously held assumptions. The closer we grow with our collaborators, the more those words of hate or ignorance personally wound us. The deeper the trust, the more grievously we feel its breach.
"IT IS A FANTASY TO THINK ONE OR TWO DIALOGUE SESSIONS WILL CREATE REAL, MEANINGFUL CHANGE."
So, where to start? First, we can’t dismiss this price of bridgebuilding, nor can we ask every individual to pay it. It is neither sustainable nor just for bridgebuilders to demand the time and vulnerability from everyone targeted by our culture wars. While building bridges is certainly necessary, it is not without costs.
Second, we submit that it is not necessary to prioritize your active adversaries. It may be safer and more fruitful to reach out first to those who do not yet know where they stand.
Third, changes of heart happen at home. Many of us like to focus on flashy, national bridgebuilding campaigns. While these campaigns offer us templates, the labor-intensive work of changing hearts happens when we speak with our family, friends, and colleagues — people who trust us to take them out of their comfort zone and see the world in new ways.
Fourth, nonprofits invested in peacebuilding need to reorient their priorities and recalibrate their expectations. It is a fantasy to think one or two dialogue sessions will create real, measurable change. Change is slow. It takes work. The horizon of a movement is not the end of the fiscal year. Instead of demanding proof of the effects of one weeklong peace intensive, funders should focus on equipping those most likely to undertake this work, slowly but surely, in their own communities.
Collaborating alongside those with deep differences is taxing and pretending otherwise simply reveals your privileged distance from the potential of harm. So when you next hear the question “Why can’t we just sit across the table from our political adversaries?”, stop and consider the implicit dismissal of harm. There is always a price.
As we make personal choices to meet and work with others — yes, including those who campaign and take to Twitter against us — we choose to accept the risks and the rewards. It is not a gamble we all must take, but it is the cost of finding common ground.
Hannah M. Santos is a Master of Theological Studies student at the Harvard Divinity School. Benjamin P. Marcus is a fellow at Freedom Forum and student at Yale Law School.