With the battles of the election finally over, a few dreamers among us may have hoped for calmer waters. But as we look ahead to President Obama’s second term, we have some big issues to confront. And we appear to be as sharply divided as ever: red states and blue states, Fox News and MSNBC.
Is there anything we can do to ease the polarization, whether it’s among friends and family — or in Congress?
Here at WGBH, we’re looking at the legacy of the late Roger Fisher, a Harvard Law professor who created “The Advocates” in 1969, a WGBH production that tackled one complex policy issue at a time, examining multiple perspectives on each topic.
With “The Advocates,” it wasn’t about reaching agreement, but laying out the choices clearly before a polarized electorate. The idea was if we really understood the issues, we’d be able to make a better decision.
Fisher died a few months ago, after a long career teaching at Harvard Law School. He advised heads of state, corporate executives, military leaders, and practically anybody who would listen to his gospel of peacemaking. His specialty was conflict resolution and negotiation.
His methods and approach could apply to today’s most complicated issues. Look at some of the questions The Advocates debated back in the 70s and 80s — many of them are still being debated today:
“We’ve gotta sit down side by side,” Fisher would say, “understand each other’s concerns and do a lot of inventing.”
“The essential ingredient of negotiation, the essential ingredient of improving a relationship, is to listen before you decide. … I have one rule, sort of summarizing it all, boiling it down: If you want a good relationship always consult before deciding on matters that affect the other side,” he said in a 1984 speech.
One former student described Fisher’s approach as “eternal optimism combined with rigorous method.”
“The Advocates” produced more than 200 programs over the years, each with heavyweight “witnesses,” as they were called, from King Hussein of Jordan to evangelist Billy Graham to Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden and Margaret Mead. The show helped put moderator Mike Dukakis in the Massachusetts governor’s chair.
Thanks to the Open Society Foundations, 32 Advocates programs are now available online, at the website of the WGBH Archives at openvault.wgbh.org.
Fisher’s method might help you think more clearly about the issues in our own “frankly scary period.”