Saturday, March 1, 2014

Political Dialogue and Civility in an Age of Polarization

By Sean Ahn ’15 and Christina Lee ’14


On March 1, 2014, the Harvard Negotiation Law Review (HNLR) proudly presented the symposium “Political Dialogue and Civility in an Age of Polarization,” a full-day conference on overcoming today’s political polarization using ADR principles.

HNLR symposium - Panel 1

HNLR symposium – Panel 1

The symposium featured three panel discussions involving prominent academics, dispute resolution experts, and political practitioners from around the country. The first panel, “Political Discourse, How It Has Changed, and Why It Is the Way It Is,” gave an overview of how the current challenges came to be, and how pressures on politicians have changed the legislative atmosphere over time, weakening bipartisan relationships and shifting election laws toward redistricting and gerrymandering to influence polarization. Moderated by Nancy Welsh, this discussion included Jim Flug, Peter Ambler, and Tom Bonier. To provide an ADR perspective the response panelist, Professors Robert Bordone and David Matz, addressed how actors could help shape civility and overcome structural barriers to negotiation by being more aware of politicians’ electoral interests and framing the conversation away from the win-lose dichotomy.

HNLR symposium - Panel 2

HNLR symposium – Panel 2

The symposium’s second panel, “Overcoming Challenges to Civil Dialogue,” explored technological, geographical, and ideological issuesthat affecting political discourse. Featuring Jonathan Zittrain, Frances Kissling, and John Allen, with Robert Bordone and Amy Cohen as response panelists, the panel reflected on the variety of ways people relate to the perceived “other”: through tribalist rivalry, through face-saving maneuvers, through values-driven demonization. Some possible solutions offered included creating connection with the “other” through casual interpersonal relationships before tackling big issues, humanizing the “other” by searching for shared interests outside the central contested issue, and increasing acceptability of resolutions through a legitimacy-ensuring process.

HNLR symposium - Panel 3

HNLR symposium – Panel 3

The third panel of the symposium, “What Worked: Practical Strategies for Loosening the Gridlock,” discussed ways in which panelists have used their ADR knowledge and skills to help political actors bridge partisan divides or to find creative solutions to political challenges. From their on-the-ground experience managing political conflict, the panelists touched on many of the themes and questions that had arisen earlier in the day. This panel featured Laura Chasin, Carolyn Lukensmeyer, and Michael Ostrolenk and was moderated by Heather Kulp.

Krista Tippett

Krista Tippett

The symposium culminated with a keynote talk by National Public Radio’s “On Being” radio host and author, Krista Tippett. Tippett’s talk connected the conversations of the three panels by thinking through the challenges of contemporary issues—from the reimagining of authority, community, and leadership to the divided perspectives on such polarizing issues as when life begins and ends. Interweaving conversations from her radio show throughout her keynote, Tippett stressed that “words have the force of action” in fostering productive dialogue.  The symposium ended on a hopeful note with a call to engage new encounters, approaches, and conversations with an open mind.

HNLR has posted video recordings of each panel and additional information about the Symposium for public viewing.

HNLR is very grateful for the support of the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program and other co-sponsors who made the Symposium possible: Milbank Tweed, the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, Triad Consulting Group, Ki Thoughtbridge, and the Consensus Building Institute.