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OPINION | GWEN FAULKENBERRY: We can overcome our differences

by GWEN FAULKENBERRY | January 23, 2022 at 2:07 a.m.

In an effort to keep from becoming an automaton, I force myself to read and listen to different kinds of news. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are intentionally not bubbles; they are a hodgepodge of humanity ranging from people who are politically on the far right to the far left.

I am tired of political posts, though. Not because I am not interested in thoughtful political commentary, but because there is so little of it to be found. Especially where candidates are concerned, and the majority of people in office on the state and federal levels, there is nothing new or interesting, hardly ever.

Instead, it's like the two parties each have been given scripts, and everyone who represents that party's brand follows it. I don't have to know the person at all to guess their reaction to whatever happens to be the question of the day. With precious few exceptions, all I have to know is their party affiliation.

This also applies to groupthink around issues. If a group identifies itself as for or against whatever the issue is, it seems membership in that group often requires people to relinquish the ability to see, or openly discuss nuances.

I came up against this constantly when I ran for office in 2020. In one instance, a progressive women's group showed interest in supporting me, which was an honor because I saw myself as a progressive woman. It made sense we would be on the same team.

They called to interview me, and I breezed through the questions, having a good ol' time chatting with the lady who conducted the interview. She seemed like a kindred spirit. I sensed I had their support in the bag until she asked me where I stood on abortion.

As I started to explain that I value all life, and would like to see women have better options than abortion, she became very quiet. "You are not pro-choice?" she asked. The call abruptly ended, as did my hopes of their support. Refusal to define myself by their terms meant I was suddenly dropped like a flaming potato.

I was disappointed. God knows I needed all the help I could get. But over time I felt more graceful toward them and tried to respect their values. After all, there are some places we have to draw hard lines. If I expect anyone to respect my convictions, I need to be respectful of others, even if I disagree or don't understand. It's those who draw the same lines we do, I suppose, who we consider our people.

A year later I received an invitation from the president of that group. They wanted to meet and talk with me. I could not imagine why, but I was game. They offered to drive my way but I was coming to Little Rock for other meetings, so they gave me an address. I showed up to an elegant older house in cold, gentle rain. The table was set with hot tea, strawberries, and cookies. I automatically liked the women I met there, and the feeling seemed to be mutual.

The president spoke. "The first thing we want to do is apologize. We were wrong not to support you. That was stupid of us, and we want you to know if you ever run for office again we will."

To say this was a surprise would be like saying the Beatles were a nice little singing group. I had no idea--no inkling--that was coming.

"That's very kind," I sputtered. "Thank you."

The rest of the meeting was, for me, like a waking dream. I am still in awe that it really happened. The ladies asked me questions about my experiences as a candidate. We had a lot of honest conversation on what we each believe about when life begins, women's rights, and how to help our state crawl out of the bottom of the bucket when it comes to teenage pregnancy, childhood hunger, and infant mortality.

We all listened, and I believe we all learned. I learned, for instance, that some Jewish people interpret the Bible to mean that life begins when we take our first breath--like in the Adam and Eve story. We discussed how states like Colorado have lowered the number of unwanted pregnancies, and thus the number of abortions, by half in five years, by providing better access to long-acting reversible contraception for low-income women at little to no cost. The expense on the front end is covered by a fraction of the millions the state saves in public assistance.

Toward the end of our meeting, the president asked me, "Would you be willing to help us come up with a way to talk about this with people who identify as pro-life? Because we've learned that our way of approaching it in the past is not working. We need to do something different."

It sounds pretty simple and logical when I write it. But the reason this meeting, with its sincere apology, nuanced conversation, desire to learn from mistakes and work across divides was like a dream for me is that even though I talk about it, write about it, long for it, I so rarely see it happen in the public square.

I see people hemmed in behind their hard lines, shouting across at other people who are standing behind their own, shouting back. The pro-life group can't hear pro-choicers talk about reproductive health because to pro-lifers abortion is murder. Vaxxers can't hear anti-vaxxers talk about personal bodily freedom because to the vaxxer it's about science and the greater good.

Same with masks, guns, immigration, whatever. No one seems to understand or even listen to anyone on the other side of the line. We are dug in with our people, those with whom we share a script, and do not dare deviate from the script.

What this group did was throw out the script. They invited me behind their line, knowing I disagree with them about some things. They asked questions and sought to understand, rather than convince me they were right and I was wrong.

And then they did the most miraculous thing of all. They sought a way to bring our lines as close as possible and see where we might overlap. Because whether we ever agree on abortion or not--and we won't--we all agree that reducing unwanted pregnancies saves lives, and we all want that. It's a win-win.

Since then we've met several times to talk about ways to work on the common goal of saving lives. I'm hopeful we can mobilize faith communities to help convince our lawmakers. A pro-life legislature such as our own surely will be quick to propose legislation like Colorado's, which provides easier access to reliable contraception, once they understand it is proven to cut the number of abortions in half. This saves a lot of lives--both the mother's and child's.

What this group showed me, and keeps showing me, is that overcoming our differences can be done. Even in this hostile, polarized environment, we can do it if we are brave enough. If we care enough.

People who hold different beliefs can work together and find solutions that benefit everyone. Those solutions may not be perfect and fix everything; we are not all going to get everything we want. But we can all use our minds and hearts and hands to break the deadlock that paralyzes us and move forward, in humility, together.

We the people belong to each other. All Arkansans are our people.

Gwen Ford Faulkenberry is an English teacher and editorial director of the non-partisan group Arkansas Strong. (http://arstrong.org) Email her at gfaulkenberry@hotmail.com.


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