Is Dialogue Even Safe in the Trump Era?

As you may have gleaned from the last post, the state of the U.S. is troubling me on a deep level. It has, among other things, left me with no stomach for dialogue—a very strange position for the host of a website called The Dialogue Venture.

This made more sense to me in the immediate wake of the presidential election. A seismic shift like the election of Donald Trump takes some processing. But it’s now December and I still don’t want to talk.

I may, however, be starting to figure out why. And the reasons may bump into some of America’s deepest divides like a dentist’s drill on a raw nerve.

(Warning: some of what follows may induce eyerolling and the no shit, Sherlock response. I will completely understand. More than that, you may know from experience that I’ve got some important stuff in here totally wrong. If that’s true, please tell me.)

Here’s the thing: Reaching out to others in dialogue is a vulnerable act. Just saying “I want to dialogue with you” requires that we let our guard down. This is difficult enough when we do it from a position of strength—when the balance of power is at least equal (or tips to our side), when we feel safe and stable, when we perceive no threats on the horizon.

It’s nearly impossible when those strengths are missing.

As I wrote in my last post, no one who feels disrespected—or invalidated, or invisible, or in any way marginalized—wants to talk with their disrespecters. More broadly, no one wants to talk when they sense a clear and present danger in their environment, when opening up to dialogue carries a high risk of yet another, deeper wound. Only the saintly or heroic can even think of reaching out when vulnerable.

Before November 8—as a white, suburban, straight, genderfluid person—I perceived myself as in a position of relative strength or stability. Yes, people could mock my gender identity, but they were usually strangers and their voices were few. The election of Donald Trump, with his chronic denigration of others, has changed that. Suddenly being different—or even welcoming difference—leaves one open to disrespect and, sometimes, much worse.

It feels like a dark place. And yet there is one fascinating glimmer of light. I wonder if my sense of vulnerability is a teeny-tiny glimpse into the world of so many who have been disrespected every day, all day long, for decades, even centuries.

This feels like what I’ve read about the experience of African Americans, and why many of them view white people’s efforts to reach across divides with distrust and suspicion. This feels like what I’ve read as the reasons for separatist movements. This feels like what I know personally, from my experience as a genderfluid person, as frustration with having to explain, over and over again, who I am and why I am, when people who fit the cultural mold never have to explain. (To make things even more complicated, I know that sometimes it’s really important that I do explain myself, as I wrote here.)

Now, looping back to what I wrote last week:

No one who feels disrespected wants to dialogue with their disrespecters—and we all feel disrespected.

This apparently includes supporters of Mr. Trump. We have all heard the narrative: for a sizable chunk of the U.S. population—many of them middle or working class, living in rural areas, scraping to get by—the impact of global trends has been brutal. Their wages have stagnated, at best, for decades. No one in power, according to this view, is listening to them.

So if they get approached by an affluent professor from a big city, saying, “I want to dialogue with you,” why would they want to?

Now in fact some researchers—like Katherine Cramer from the University of Wisconsin—have made this work. That doesn’t obviate the fact that, for many of us right now, curling into our own worldviews and living there awhile sounds pretty good.

I don’t know what to do with all this. One imperative seems clear: if people don’t want to dialogue right now, we need to respect the living hell out of that. They have some very good reasons. Maybe the only thing we can do now is one-half the hard work of dialogue: shut up and listen.

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