The Power of Civil Discourse: Strengthening Marriage

25 Oct

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.

6 Responses to “The Power of Civil Discourse: Strengthening Marriage”

  1. Dan October 25, 2012 at 7:08 am #

    A most excellent reminder of the value of civil discussion and remembering that the people with whom we disagree are, at their core, human beings trying to get by just like us.

    This story made me feel good when it seems like all the news is bad! Thank you!

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt October 25, 2012 at 7:11 am #

      Thank you for the lovely comment. I shall try with greater effort to find more stories to celebrate as I try not to give into misanthropy.

  2. le artiste boots October 25, 2012 at 7:25 am #

    Great post.

    Sent from my iPad

  3. Bruce Kestelman October 25, 2012 at 9:31 am #


    I loved how you conveyed the true essence of this story. It’s in our ability and much hard work to go beyond the positions that we and they stake out to an understanding of our interests that we often find common ground. It is about moving discourse from a world of finite payoff where you win and I lose or you lose and I win or worse, I think compromise where we both lose, to a world of infinite payoff where we can build upon our common interests to come to an answer where we both win.

    I think that some people are naturally warriors and others are the peace makers. We need both. I think it’s hard to find both beliefs in the same person, yet it’s possible. What’s important as we wage war in this country to achieve equity and a valuing of individual differences is to ensure that we give voice to both the warriors and the peace makers.

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt October 25, 2012 at 10:29 am #

      What a very thoughtful and lovely comment. Thank you again for your inspiration. Yes, I most certainly agree. We need both warriors and peace makers. I think aspire to combine both in my blog and fear I may fail more often than I would like.

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