my bullet-proof spineAfter listening to our On Being’s Civil Conversations series, Michigander Carolyn Peterson wrote us expressing her hope for real-life opportunities to engage civilly with others differing in perspective:

“I would like someone to set up a website in which people could find political pen pals for civil, substantive conversations. For example, I am a liberal Christian Democrat who would like to ‘talk’ with a fundamentalist Christian Tea Party supporter. We would agree to stay engaged, to share sources, to treat each other with respect.”

We’re curious about this possibility as well. One of the objectives of The Civil Conversaions Project was “beginning new conversations in families and communities.” Maybe it could it function like a site, which, instead of pairing you with a romantic partner, would pair you with your political opposite — though the two need not be mutually exclusive of course! Many of us could get behind Ms. Peterson’s ground rules to “stay engaged, share sources, and treat each other with respect.”

How might we going about doing this? Have you experienced a positive “substantive conversation” in this kind of intentional manner? How would you design such a regular encounter or opportunity in everyday life?

About the image: A self-portrait of a woman with two titanium rods secured in place with long screws and other hardware who is looking for some “old school style pen pals” that “want to talk about the world, art, music, share ideas, etc.” and “connect with people” she “would normally never get a chance to meet.” (photo: Katie Dureault/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0 )

Share Your Reflection



My co-instructor and I integrated the Civil Conversations series into a senior seminar at Sterling College (VT) called A Sense of Planet. Our own conversation about the series and about the wonderful book essay series, The Open Space of Democracy by Terry Tempest Williams, created a lasting framework for discussions in the course. I would look forward to a similar place in which to have conversation across the political spectrum; on my own time, I've found that Twitter works quite nicely to identify people with whom I may share one or two interests but who otherwise come from an entirely different political and spiritual perspective. Perhaps there is a way to embed such an broad conversation in this site somewhere--curated lists of Twitter users based on some array of interests. I look forward to it.

Ahhh, yes, I remember reading about your project. Thank you for the ideas.

Thanks, Trent. I would love to talk more about it & the kids of things we do at Sterling. I think we resonate quite well with On Being's mission.

Thanks, Trent. I would love to talk more about it & the kinds of things we do at Sterling. I think we resonate quite a bit with On Being's mission and message. 

I think the idea of a "Civil Conversation" portal is great; in fact, as of this morning, is still available!

I don't agree with using various matchmaker/social networking services as a model. I think the more sustainable approach is to develop an online community that supports small conversations and thus fosters connectiveness and a sense of belonging --- I'm a big Peter Block fan! There are a number of platforms available; my personal experience has been with, which makes setting up a community network with features such as forums, blogs, etc. very easy. 

In the past Speaking of Faith/On Being has been associated with/supported by portals such as this; I'm curious what your experience has been? 

Keep up the great work!

Great idea.  Could one solution be something as simple as a Meetup (  They are usually centered around a common interest.  Maybe someone could start a Civil Disagreement meetup.  Instead of a disembodied pen pal style conversation, a meetup could offer real face to face dialog with people connected geographically.

if people are just curious about how other people (with differing worldviews) understand various issues than it would be possible to have such an exchange by asking genuine questions and making space for them to answer, but only if we recognize that there are genuine differences in opinion that are shaped by truly different basic (starting) assumptions which frame things in ways that there will be no necessary common grounds for the characteristics of what is being discussed.
These limits to reason giving, dialogue, are why we have and will always need political systems and hopefully democratic ones.
If your temperament is such that you can accept that such basic differences/perspectives are to be tolerated and not try and convert everyone than civil conversations can ensue, but if you believe that "deep" down we are all the same, or that if people could just be brought to see the Truth or be Reasonable like you are than all will be well with the world than please don't bother with setting up yet another such forum.

There are already hundreds if not thousands of sites where people can share their religious/philosophical differences.  Why in God's name do you want another one? Much more useful is a site dedicated to explaining our identical human nature and the need for us to discard the superficial, fictional differences, which would allow the cuts they make in the face of humanity to heal.

One possible set-up for the website (already posted as a fb comment):

Interested participants, once they've registered, would find links to specific premises such as "Elimination of tax cuts for the wealthiest 1%?"... "Approval of the Keystone Pipeline Project"...  Privatization of Social Security... Stricter immigration reform... Tougher climate change-related regulation... along with various foreign policy issues, etc.Participants would click on one or two issues of interest and indicate whether their position on that issue is "pro" or "con." An algorithm designed into the website would automatically match people in pairs, with one "pro" and one "con" per pair. Before beginning a respectful dialog with their counterpart, participants would also have the option to click on "It's OK to allow our dialog to be open for other registered members to follow." That way all members of the 'Political Pen Pal site' could benefit from being exposed to additional perspectives involving both their own issue(s) of interest as well as other issues by being able to vicariously read and follow other members' two-way dialogs. 

I like this idea very much. I fear there would be negativity despite your best efforts. I'd love to be pleasantly surprised & would gladly take part.
I also like the idea of a moderator starting off the topic of the week. As suggested, you could select pro or con, then be matched to an opposing viewpoint holder.
Maybe there could be a moderator overall to ensure that people hold to the spirit and don't resort to "bullying".