Recently I attended an open forum on gun control. There were over 150 people in the room. It was really intense. The person moderating the conversation did a great job introducing the topic and giving many of us a chance to speak. And though the meeting went fairly well I believe that things could have been set up in a manner that might have created even more space for different perspectives which could have set the stage for an actual conversation on the issue. Here are some reflections on what I believe was not effective and what might be done to create conditions for deeper dialogue.
Knowing it would be a challenge to limit the time people wanted to speak the moderator asked us to clap if we agreed that 2 minutes was a goodly amount of time for comments to be made. Many clapped, but not everyone. He then asked us to clap if we agreed that he had the right to cut any of us off at 2 minutes. Many clapped, but not everyone. He didn’t address anyone who might have thought 2 minutes was not enough time, nor did he address those who might have had a problem with him being the one to be setting the rules and claiming the power to cut people off. He also said that each of us would have a chance to speak, which did not turn out to be the case as some still had their hands up when time ran out. These omissions would have predictable consequences later in the meeting.
The panel, people who mostly support gun control, spoke for about an hour at the two hour meeting. Then other people had the chance to speak. One man stood up, he was the first speaker. He was tall, eloquent and spoke with respect and kindness. He was just getting to his point; I believe it was something about guns not being the problem when his 2 minutes were up. The microphone was removed. Immediately a man in the back started shouting. He called it a sham. Another man joined in the shouting. They were quite angry. The moderator intervened and raised his voice back at the man. He reminded him of the two minute rule. This shouting out happened a few more times, with this one man and another man seated more in the middle. They appeared to be expressing the side of less gun legislation. A feeling of fear and tension rose in me and in the room each time this happened. Each time it happened people looked around nervously, not sure what to do. At one point a staff person, a woman, moved slowly towards the man who was the loudest. Her movement seemed to help him deescalate. They went back and forth, the moderator and the shouting men. It took a few tries but the moderator, seemingly supported by most of those in the room, got them to stop shouting. While this served to maintain some control in the moment, which was a relief to most of us, it effectively further marginalized what was in this setting a marginal position. The one who was most disruptive eventually left the room.
At this meeting the people who do not want more gun legislation appeared to be in a role that was momentarily marginalized. This was partly because the meeting was hosted by a leader who supports greater legal control of the sale and use of some guns. And there were 5 speakers, 4 of whom appeared to support tighter gun legislation. Those who want fewer gun laws may have felt that their interests were underrepresented.
Part of the way to create productive conversations on this hot topic is to allow the marginal position to be expressed and to make sure they know they were heard.
When I got the microphone I felt that one of the marginal positions had not yet fully been expressed or received. So I made some comments about the challenging nature of the topic. I said something like this, “This topic is so full of feeling, so fraught with pain and history, it is amazing we can gather in a public space and discuss it at all…and some of us have such strong feelings we can barely follow the rules and contain our speech. My two brothers keep shouting, trying to get their point across. I would like to see them get the microphone and express their position clearly…”
Eventually the one man, who had also been shouting, in the middle, got the microphone and expressed his position. People listened to him respectfully. He did not shout after he did so. There seemed to be a sigh of relief after he spoke.
One of the panelists noted that though the issue of gun violence impacts communities of color disproportionately, the room was mostly filled with Caucasians. One African American man was given the microphone, after one of the panelists noticed he had his hand up for a long time without getting a chance to speak. I noticed an African American woman in the back, who also had her hand up for quite a while. I went over to the man who had the difficult job of taking the microphone to people who wanted to speak and said “There is an African American woman in the back who has wanted to speak. I think you should make sure she has a chance to speak. We have not heard from a black woman yet.”
She was the last one to speak. And she gave a powerful personal testimony that appeared to stir many in the crowd.
These were tiny interventions that created a little more space for expression. We were all doing our best to listen to each other. When emotional space is made in a group like this feelings of anger and fear may decrease and people with more extreme positions may feel freer to express themselves respectfully. It is a form of violence prevention.
The man who left the meeting early, who had been shouting, what does he think of those wanting to limit freedoms related to gun ownership and the availability of guns? What did he think of the way it was moderated? How could he have been included better and allowed to express his strong position? Where did he go? Though in this case he did not return, someone leaving a meeting like this, who appears to be quite angry, can be considered a potential safety risk.
What would have happened if the rules were set up differently from the beginning or the whole event had been framed in different manner?
Here are six things that could have been done differently that might have decreased the hostility and created more connections with people in the room, especially between those with different values and beliefs about guns:
- Have at least one representative from the pro-gun perspective on the panel. If this person was able to express their views respectfully it would have made the environment less tense from the beginning. Those who feel on the margins would sense that their perspective has a voice. It could decrease fear and anger for some and increase the likelihood that a deeper conversation could happen.
- Make sure to address those who have a problem with the ground rules. It is a challenge given the time frame, size of the group and intensity of the topic, to know what to do in a group like that about those who might disagree with the rules and limits. One might say something like this. “I am going to lay down some ground rules for us all. The purpose of the rules is to provide a context for a fruitful conversation, making sure as many of you get to speak as possible. Now there may be some of you who disagree with these rules or the fact that I am setting them. I realize in doing this I have a lot of power here, I will attempt to be as aware as possible of the power I have in this role.”
- Deal up front with the likelihood that not all will get a chance to speak. You could say, “One of the goals here is to get as many diverse perspectives as possible. If many ideas are expressed but you do not get a chance to speak take heart in knowing it is likely that someone who has an idea close to yours will express something similar to your opinion. If not then please make sure to record your comment or question on these cards and we will have responses and a chance for further dialogue on our website. If someone is representing a demographic that has not been expressed I would like them to have a chance to speak.”
- Invite compassion and respect for all people by pointing out that we do not know why others believe what they do. We each have a right to our beliefs about guns and our constitutional rights. There is a diversity of opinion, even among people well-educated on this topic, who have read the same studies and reports and articles about “random” mass murders. If we can maintain respect and open our minds to the possibility of becoming curious about why the other thinks so differently from us, we might find ourselves in a more engaging and effective conversation. And though we may be tempted to view those who differ with us as less intelligent it is more useful to consider that they likely have different values from ours and are getting their information from different sources than we are.
- Remember positional power. If you are a panelist, or the moderator of a meeting like this you have very high positional power. That is why it is vital to the success of the conversation that you speak and act with as much awareness as possible of the power dynamics in the room. It might be good to acknowledge that though you strongly believe in gun control, you acknowledge that others may disagree equally strongly, and they have a right to their opinion. And you will do your best to listen to it.
- Break the group up into smaller groups, so that more perspectives could be expressed and received. One way to do this is to have round tables set up in the room, so that people would begin by sitting in small groups, where they could easily begin a conversation, and from where they could also contribute to the large group.