In 2001, Krista Tippett had an almost unthinkable idea for the time: An hour-long public radio program in which she met with the world’s poets, theologians, philosophers and scientists to have long, meandering conversations about religion, ethics and meaning.
“On Being” (née “Speaking of Faith”) has been running for almost 15 years and has earned a Peabody Award for Tippett’s work interviewing some of the heaviest hitters of religious and philosophical life in the past 100 years, including the Dalai Lama, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the reclusive poet Mary Oliver.
Tippett is a keynote speaker on Feb. 28 at Seattle University’s “Search for Meaning Book Festival,” where she will talk about one of her recent projects, the “Civil Conversations Project.”
In conversations that take place on the radio and in public forums, Tippett brings together people with different views on society’s challenging questions to talk about them in a new way, without framing the debate as a two-sided, winner-takes-all argument.
In one discussion, Tippett invited Christian ethicist David Gushee and reproductive rights advocate Frances Kissling to participate in a conversation called “Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Pro-Dialogue,” where the two talked openly about their beliefs and asked each other questions about abortion.
With the “Civil Conversations Project,” Tippett wants to break away from the either/or nature of public debate, as she believes most people reside in “the vast middle.”
Real Change spoke with Tippett by phone to ask how this project came to pass, and how the format works when civility seems all but impossible for many topics.
I’d like to start our conversation where you usually start your interviews. You open the show by asking the guest to talk about their spiritual life as a child. Why do you always start with that question?
I have found that to be kind of a magical question. And the most obvious reason is that everyone has a story around that question, whether they were raised in a religious background or not, or whether their relationship to that religious background was healthy or positive or rebellious. I think that that is a part of life that becomes a container for really important questions that we all continue to reframe and pursue for the rest of our lives, and so I’ve had the most interesting answers to that question over the years.
But I think the more important reason that I ask it is because of where it plants the conversation. I have to point out that asking somebody if there was a religious or spiritual background to their early life, however they would define that, is a very different question from asking are you religious now, which would shut all of us down, including me. That’s an impossible question to answer in a meaningful way head on. But again, that question takes people back to their earliest wondering about these animating questions of meaning: Where did we come from? and Where are we going? and What does it mean to live a good life? and How do I find purpose? and How to love. All of those questions are kind of evoked by that other inquiry. So, it’s a more searching sort [of]place than we usually present in public, and I find that it sets the conversation in a searching and soft place.
The big thing I want to talk with you about — because this is the topic of your talk that you’re giving at Seattle University — is about the “Civil Conversations Project.” Could you tell us a little bit about how that came to be? I understand it was coming together around the time that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot at that public appearance near Tucson. [In a Jan. 8, 2011, assassination attempt, Giffords received a critical gunshot wound to the head. During the shooting, six other people were killed and 13 wounded. Giffords retired from office a year later to concentrate on her recovery. ]
Yeah, that’s right. We had just come out of yet another election season that was so divisive and so toxic. And I think that my producers and I started this as much as human beings as journalists. I think that we were feeling this anguish that I believe so many people share now, just a feeling of alienation from our own political process.
You watch important subjects get discussed and debated and voted on, and yet it feels like the question of what’s at stake in human terms — whether we’re talking about the economy or immigration or marriage — that there’s so much that’s not being named or addressed. I’m not sure that I believe that there’s a real center.
I think most of us on any given issue might be somewhere to the right or the left of center. But I also believe that we have let the most extreme, strident voices at the extreme poles of the spectrum frame and conduct the public debate. Most of us — whether right or left of center — have some questions left over and have some longing and curiosity about people who are on a different side of an issue and a desire to shape the world together.
And how do you describe a civil conversation? What does it look like or sound like?
I call it the “Civil Conversations Project.” I’m not completely satisfied with the word “civility.” I think, like a lot of words that we cherish and need the most, it gets a little ruined by overuse. I think “civil” can sound polite and nice and not muscular enough for what we mean. So when I say “a civil conversation,” I don’t mean a conversation where everybody’s polite. The way I’m titling my talk is “The Adventure of Civility.” I like to couple the language of civility with kind of unexpected words. I think civility is something we risk, we cultivate. One way that I’ve learned about civil conversations [is] that they are life-giving and transformative; is that they involve unlikely combinations of people. I’m not at all interested in the dead-end debates that we rehearse over and over again. We know exactly where they’re gonna end.
I really believe that we have the power to reframe our approach, that reframing the question we’re applying to any big issue can open all kinds of new possibilities in terms of how we can grapple with things together. Whereas a lot of debates that we’ve all run down the list in our mind that happen in public life, they end up being about what you’re for and against. There’s some extreme position, and you have to take either side.
When I was looking through the civil conversations that you had up on the website, one of that stood out for me was your interview with Terry Tempest Williams. And she had this line, “It’s not enough to get a smile from your enemy, that gives me no solace. What I really want to know is what are you really thinking? What are you really feeling?” Is that kind of what you’re getting at?
Yeah, somebody else who’s been formative for me is Frances Kissling. She was the head of Catholics for Choice for many years. She’s very well-known as a pro-choice activist. And she retired from Catholics for Choice about five years ago completely dismayed by the state of the abortion debate. That’s one of the classic [debates] that we’ve just tied up into knots, and she wanted to explore in the next stage of her life what it would mean to be in real relationship with her political opposites. Not that it brings them over to her side. But what would it mean to be who they are, to have the truth they’re passionate about and yet to be in relationship?
How would you handle it in a situation when we start talking about really difficult issues? I’m thinking in particular about times when we’re dealing with the oppression of people, and I’m thinking of issues of racism and misogyny. For some people the idea of a conversation like this might seem impossible. How do you handle that?
I think that’s right. I think some of the big crises and the most anguished questions for us are around things like race or misogyny, or identity, which is fundamental to who we are. And in any of these, they’re both civilizational and intimate at once. There are some people on the front lines of that issue for whom it is not going to be safe or reasonable to say to them, “You should be in a relationship with your enemies.” So there’s a need for bridge-people, and that’s one thing I’m looking for when I create my dialogues. I think reflexively, what we do when we set up a dialogue is we get two people who are on opposite sides. We get two advocates who are very passionately opposed to each other and possibly people who are really personally invested in things, too. I’m interested in bridge-people who are going to be safe and who can reflect and represent and articulate on behalf of people who are possibly really damaged and hurt by whatever the dynamic is.
On a little bit of a different note, there has been criticism of media and journalism that tries to present both sides of an issue equally. You get an issue like climate change, there are people who say that it doesn’t represent reality to show both sides as having equal merit. So how you approach that?
Yeah, I don’t ever believe that there are two sides to any important issue: There are hundreds of sides. Your point is there is the criticism of giving two sides equal weight when in fact that’s kind of absurd, which we do on a number of issues. I think what concerns me as much about that, turning everything into two sides, is that it simplifies everything. It takes away the complexity that’s there. So that’s another thing I’m always looking for: People who are able to speak out of the complexity of what’s at stake, both through the lives they’ve lived as well as through their engagement with whatever the issue is.
I want to shift gears a little bit and then talk more broadly about “On Being.” It’s really unique not just in the topics that you discuss, but the fact that you air hour-long conversation with one or two people.
[It’s] counter-cultural, right?
It is. Everyone else is presenting everything in these short, digestible bursts, and you’re holding these long conversations. Has there been any pressure to make it more digestible, or are you going to keep going at it the way you have been?
There was pressure from the very beginning. I always said 10 years ago, I want to have a big conversation, and we’re talking on huge issues and we can’t do it in six minutes or 12 minutes. And from the very first, even within public radio, there was this outcry that you can’t do that to people and that’s not the way the world works anymore. And I know, I belong to this culture, I understand that we’ve trained ourselves to take a lot of things in bite sizes and to be entertained. But what I’m always aware of in myself and in our listeners is that that’s actually not what we all want or need 24/7, and so many of us are willing and ready to carve out places in our week to focus and to dive deep. And I almost think that the profusion of what comes at us in terms of information from here and there actually has reawakened this parallel need we have for places to go to be reminded what really matters; and how do I want to order my attention and what has meaning and is a compass to me?
So I think that’s what we’re speaking to in our content. And despite all the people who predicted 10 years ago that there wouldn’t be a place for this, it’s been very successful.
And we put out in our podcasts a 52-minute show and also the 90-minute, unedited interview. And I have to tell you that was not my idea, that was my digital colleague’s idea and we have, like, 400,000 people who download the raw, 90-minute audio every month. So there’s something going on besides the fact we’re being more superficial [laughs], and I believe in that. And I am trying to nurture that with my little media project.
You’ve interviewed some amazing people, and I’m thinking of Thich Nhat Hanh [a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and author of more than 100 books] and the Dalai Lama, and so I just wonder do you have a bucket list of people that you’d like to interview or people that you can’t interview and wish you could?
One thing that gives me a lot of hope in a funny way is that I do have a long sense of time, and I think my conversation partners have instilled that in me.
I think what’s true across history is that at any given moment, the people who are doing something that is gonna save the world 50 years from now or 100 years from now are probably not the ones with publicists [laughs]. I remember talking to Sister Joan Chittister, who’s a Benedictine nun, about how St. Benedict was in sixth century Rome or fourth century Rome writing his rule, founding these little communities of five or six people, getting kicked out of some of them himself, and nobody was writing a headline, “Benedict Writes Rule” back then. And then 1,000 years later, it’s these monastic communities that literally preserve Western civilization.
And I don’t think we know what is happening in the world right now that is going to preserve civilization. I interview a lot of people who are below the radar who might be very esteemed in their world, but are not famous. And so as much as I do have a list of some luminous people who I’d like to be in conversation with — I mean, I’d like to interview Pope Francis — I also look forward to who I might discover and learn about next month or next year, [who’s] changing the part of the world that they can see and touch.
And I do think that there’s every possibility that they’re as world-changing as somebody who’s making headlines or has a big title.
Krista Tippett will deliver the keynote speech at the “Search for Meaning Book Festival” on Feb. 28 at 4:15 pm, book signing is at 5:30 p.m. at Seattle University. Tickets for the daylong event are $10, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds. For more information, visit http://www.seattleu.edu/searchformeaning/