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Joe Wilson’s Dialogue

Years ago, before I had a better hold on my temper, I screamed at a star player during a kids’ softball game. It was stupid and reprehensible. The game was emotionally charged, and I lost my cool. I promptly apologized to anyone and everyone who would listen.

My point here is that we all say insanely stupid things now and then. So I am not here to pile on Joe Wilson. Instead, I want to explore what his outburst during the president’s health care speech—and the aftermath thereof—can tell us about dialogue.

Many commentators have already covered the obvious: that “you lie!” is emblematic of the remarkable incivility that has pervaded recent headlines and town hall meetings. But where does this incivility come from? The language gives us a clue: it’s the kind of speech used by those who (a) have deeply held beliefs or vested interests and (b) perceive them to be under dire threat. Threats induce our fight-or-flight response, so Joe Wilson spoke fighting words.

The problem is, we can’t dialogue like that—so we can’t resolve anything that way.

Dialogue, by our working definition, requires a clear mind and a listening heart—an openness to the other—so we can think together toward the truth of the matter. We need this “thinking together” because no one has a corner on the truth. But we cannot cultivate the required openness if we cling to our beliefs as the only way to perceive the issue.

The health care debate is a great example. There are many good ideas on the table. But how can we think together about them if we do not open our minds and hearts? Rejecting openness just leaves us with the same vested interests and tired phrases that obscure the dialogue: “you lie,” “death panels,” etc.

Then there are the strange mechanics of apology in our current age. Whenever someone says or does something inappropriate on the public stage, he quickly apologizes. Pundits just as quickly parse the wording of the apology and conclude that it’s not enough (or it’s not sincere). The offender may apologize again, and that’s not enough. Ad nauseam.

This raises two lessons for dialogue—one based on truth, the other on grace. First, dialogue cannot proceed unless the participants share a commitment to honesty. So apologize only if you’re sorry; to craft a faux apology leads to mistrust and distracts from the dialogue at hand. Second, if you receive a sincere apology, forgive and move on.

How do these lessons promote dialogue? Consider that dialogue often involves discussions of sensitive issues among people who disagree. Discussions get heated, and yes, people can say intemperate things. That requires a mechanism for honest apologies and ready forgiveness. The participants can’t be expected to maintain their openness and trust—and thus advance the dialogue further—if “offenders” issue insincere apologies and “offendees” let their resentment linger. 

If we’re going to move forward on social issues, we need dialogue. That, in turn, requires us to open our minds and hearts and keep them open, even when the discussion boils over. 

But how do we get to this openness in the first place? This, I believe, is where the Divine can play such a powerful role. Good topic for next week.

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