This is the story of two men who had radically opposing views. By making an effort, and engaging in a real conversation, they came to an understanding that shifted the course of their relationship and of an organizational mission. Thanks to regular TSM reader Bruce Kestelman for pointing me to their tale.
Jonathan Rauch is a well-known political activist, speaker, and writer. He is also a gay man and a staunch advocate for marriage equality; foes have called him “the most formidable and persuasive voice for same-sex marriage.” David Blankenhorn is a conservative fathers’ rights advocate and the founder and president of the Institute for American Values. He has been a strong advocate of “mother-father marriage” and a vocal opponent of equality. The two men have naturally been long aware of each other and have traded barbs in the press. Something fundamental began to shift in their interaction in 2004.
They shared the stage at a 2004 promoting Rauch’s book, Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America. Blankenhorn intended to make his usual (flawed) pitch for marriage as a procreational institution but got caught up in his emotions and engaged in some nasty attacks on Rauch. Shockingly, he called Rauch the next day to apologize, something Rauch says had never happened before. They began talking and over the course of years realized that fundamentally they shared a goal: making marriage a stronger and more viable institution in the United States.
Through their dialogue and growing friendship, Rauch learned the value of finding common ground with an opponent (if possible). Blankenhorn underwent an even more fundamental shift, and has changed his position on marriage. While he still believes in the value of “traditional” marriage, he sees the value in sharing basic civil rights to provide a solid foundation to the institution he values. In June of this year, he published a passionate editorial endorsing marriage equality. That move has cost his organization donors and Board members, but he firmly believes it was right.
There are a couple of valuable lessons here. First, it’s helpful to listen to what your perceived opponents are really saying. Finding common ground may result in real dialogue and create an opportunity to change hearts and minds. (That’s not always possible, of course. Some people will hold onto their positions without thought or care. Discussions with such people become much like the legendary time-waste of teaching a pig to sing. A second — and very valuable — lesson for the LGBT community is the power of visibility. Blankenhorn changed his mind because he got to know a gay man and came to realize that his position was untenable given its impact on his friend. Fear breeds in ignorance; knowledge is power.