Turning Controversy into Connection: A Discussion with Martha Minow and Liz Lerman

When bitter debates divide our societies – at times to the point of violence – it’s both harder and more important than ever to find the common ground that unites us. Is there a way out? Yes, say legal scholar Martha Minow and creative artist Liz Lerman in the latest event in the Humanities for Humans series. But if we want to build bridges, we need the right tools.

It’s only natural that individuals in any society will disagree on the controversial questions of the day. But what happens when civil disagreements escalate into destructive conflicts? At a time when issues like climate activism and civil unions can unleash more than heated debate – and at times outright violence – what tools do we have to facilitate compromise and genuine exchange? And how can we build connections across disagreements, without letting them further divide us?

Legal scholar Martha Minow and choreographer, educator and writer Liz Lerman tackled these fundamental questions in the latest installment of “Humanities for Humans” – a transatlantic discussion series that since 2022 has provided food for thought on controversial topics and the role of the humanities in a complex world.

Learn more about the lecture series “Humanities for Humans” in this interview with Irene Kacandes.

Martha Minow is currently the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard Law School, where she served as Dean from 2009 to 2017. In addition to a prolific career as a legal scholar, she has assisted innovative approaches for the reconciliation of divided peoples, such as the Imagine Coexistence program of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the international Divided Cities initiative. Liz Lerman is a renowned choreographer, founder of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, and creator of the Critical Response Process, a method for giving and receiving feedback and critique, especially in relation to the development of artistic works.

Following an introduction from Manuela Gerlof, representing the Walter de Gruyter Foundation, Katja Donovan and moderator Irene Kacandes of the non-profit organization 1014 – space for ideas, the floor was thrown open to the two discussants. You can view the entire conversation about “Turning Controversy into Connection” on YouTube or read a text excerpt from the discussion below.

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Irene Kacandes

We don’t have to work very hard at locating controversy. It fills the radio waves, TV news, internet sites and, of course, newspapers. Consequences of disagreement in the form of the violence of ugly words to the lethal violence of outright war often accompany much of the world’s population at our waking and follow us into our restless sleep, if we’re able to get any. It won’t escape this audience that I did not invite politicians into this conversation today, but rather a legal scholar and a creative artist. Can any course of action, set of attitudes and behaviors bring us together rather than push us apart? Professor Minow, would you like to get us started?

Martha Minow

Thank you for that beautiful framing and for this invitation. The chance to talk about this very urgent and challenging subject with my dear friend Liz Lerman is a gift. I don’t know if we will solve anything, but we will gesture towards something, that’s possible.

I am a middle child, which may explain my interest in this subject. But I am also not naive. I, too, am preoccupied with war. I’m preoccupied with the impact of digital communications on dissolving the practices of respect that have developed in face-to-face communications, and I think contributed to the polarization that we see in many countries and the unraveling of just basic norms of listening and being in the presence of others.

I do have a couple of examples, though, of where this notion of moving from controversy to connection may become more concrete. One is a very practical one: I have a friend who’s a mediator of divorcing couples. I don’t want at all to minimize war; there’s nothing as terrible as war, but the conflict between divorcing couples can be pretty terrible also. What this mediator had encountered with one couple [was that] they were so mad at each other, they didn’t even want to meet in his presence to have a mediation. So, he came up with this idea. He said: We’ll have a first session at 5:00 AM on Sunday. Immediately, the two of them turned on him. As they were just badgering him and complaining about it, they joined forces. They found something in common – they had a common enemy. It’s a very practical idea, but one that I think about a lot.

“I suddenly realized, this is the person I disagree with the most, the person who thinks there’s nothing here to talk about.”

A more complicated one: Back in the mid-90s, before the United States recognized same-sex marriage, before many countries did, there were conflicts in many parts of the United States over that question. The City of San Francisco, which has a rather high population of people who identify as LGBT, politically recognized domestic partnerships, and also convinced the city government to issue a rule saying it would not do any business with any company, nonprofit or for-profit, that failed to provide health care benefits for the domestic partners of same-sex couples. In response, the Archbishop of the Catholic Church and some other religious organizations said: Well, that’s it, we’re just not going to do any business with the city of San Francisco. The Archbishop at that time was a man named William Levada. He had an idea, and wrote an article in a magazine about it in which he said: Look, it would compromise our values to have to comply with this ordinance, so we’re not going to. However, the Catholic Church is very devoted to expanding access to health care. So, please understand that that’s where we stand.

The mayor was a man named Willie Brown. He read that article, and he called up the Archbishop and said: Let’s talk. After a series of conversations, they came up with a new rule that said that any company or nonprofit could do business with the city if they provided that employees of their entity had the freedom to specify any person in their household as a recipient of health insurance. That was big enough to encompass same-sex couples but also big enough to encompass a sibling or an elderly aunt or a homeless person who moved in. That, to me, was such a marvelous example of a real profound conflict coming to some connection. They found a point of agreement. They agreed about expanding health care. The Catholic Church did not then and has not now embraced same-sex marriage, but they found another way to work together.

The last example that I’ll give – I’d be interested, Liz, if this strikes anything for you – I remember in college having what I thought was the most intense argument I ever had in my life with somebody in my hallway who loved Ayn Rand, the author, who I just find abhorrent, an extreme version of libertarianism. We were sitting in the hallway, arguing intensely. Somebody walked by and said: What are you talking about? We explained. Then she said: Uh, why would you care about that? I suddenly realized, this is the person I disagree with the most, the person who thinks there’s nothing here to talk about.

Irene Kacandes

That sounds like a wonderful turning point. Thank you so much, Martha. Liz, would you like to respond to something Martha has just said or launch us in a completely different direction?

Liz Lerman

I always love responding to what Martha has to say. We are long-time friends and colleagues, and I would say in particular when times are extremely difficult, Martha is one of the people I turn to, to try to understand on an intellectual, emotional and spiritual level how I can wake up and do something worthwhile.

(Martha Minow: The feeling is mutual!)

I think it’s interesting to start with the three incidents that you described. In the first one, what caught my attention is this idea of common ground. In the story you tell, of course, they found common ground by a shared enemy. But I’m often in situations – most of my work is small, it’s face-to-face, it’s small groups of people – in which I’m asked to bring people together who come from different parts of a community or different disciplines if they’re at a university or different age groups. Often, I’ll pair people up across their differences and ask them to find common ground. I give them five minutes, and they go away, and they talk. Everybody can do it. They always find common ground. It’s stuff like: We both like spaghetti or things like that. I’m not really interested in what they find, I’m interested in how they found common ground. So, I’ll ask them: How did you do that? And they’ll say: Well, we asked each other questions. And I say: What kind of questions? You didn’t ask trick questions. You didn’t ask gotcha questions. A lot of times, it’s personal [questions]. Then the second thing I’ll say is: What tone of voice are you using? Are you yelling? Are you trying to dominate? What do you do? Then you realize that we have all these skills for finding common ground. We know how to do it this way. And yet, why is it in the construct of a lot of our systems that dominance comes with cruelty, comes with loud voices, comes with hitting, comes with pain?

“In praise of constancy in the midst of change … finding those places in the community that bind and hold us together, even as we acknowledge the extraordinary differences.”

In the second case, as you talk about same-sex marriage, we had a project up in Vermont during the beginning of the civil unions. If you recall, Vermont was one of the first states to bring up the civil unions. We were up there doing a project. The whole project was called “Hallelujah”, but it was asking communities what they were in praise of. In this small town of Saint Albans, they gave us a party. The town was two blocks long. We arrived, and this group of older women came up to me and said: We have to go. I said: Okay, I’m sorry. But they kept saying it, and I finally said: Where are you going? They said: Well, we’re going to play cards. It turned out that they had played cards together every Monday night for 40 years. For 40 years! There even was one day when one of their husbands had died and they had figured out how to play cards that night. This was spectacular to me, and I worked with them during the next 18 months.

We also, though, wanted to spend some time on this civil union question. We ended up inviting couples – straight couples, same-sex couples, all kinds of couples – to learn a duet, which was performed to the “Song of Songs”. Martha, this was a way of framing larger, right? Framing big enough, although not as big as I would want to do now, because I would want to be sure to include our Muslim friends, too. But in this case, letting this community see this happen in front of them. In the final performance, which was packed – 2,000 people, everyone [came] to see all these people – the women were on stage playing cards the whole time. They occupied the corner of the stage. Then somebody got up in the audience and asked to marry one of his friends, and they came up on stage in front of everybody, and that began these duets.

What’s going on? “In praise of constancy in the midst of change” was what we call this. That is finding those places in the community that bind and hold us together, even as we acknowledge the extraordinary [differences]. The women weren’t all in favor of civil union. That was the thing. They weren’t, and a lot of people in the audience knew they weren’t, but they still had a big enough embrace. I feel part of my job is that stretching, that embrace that can hold these changes while we try to figure out how to live with them.

Check out the rest of the interview here!

[Title image by StudioM1/iStock/Getty Images]

The Editors

Articles signed by the editors were written in a collective effort.

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