In Mr. Trump’s Escher World, Is Dialogue Under Assault?

There’s been a lot of talk in the dialogue field since the U.S. presidential election. Practitioners are talking about the meaning of Donald Trump’s victory for dialogue efforts, our collective failure to listen to a wide swath of the American electorate, etc. Many have voiced the belief that we need dialogue more than ever.

And yet, ever since hearing this talk, something has felt off to me. I’m just starting to put my finger on it, and I’m surprised by how dire it feels. In a nutshell, if I’m seeing this right, the very underpinnings of dialogue are under assault.

Consider three of these underpinnings:

Words mean things. To state the obvious: dialogue depends on words. To understand each other, we have to agree on the meanings of those words, or at least understand each other’s meanings. If we don’t, how can I can begin to know what you’re saying?

Yet this very notion is going away. All too often Mr. Trump appears to use the first word that comes into his mind, not caring what it might mean or connote. He makes great use of “throwaway lines,” easy to deny or reinterpret later. Or he dismisses what he’s said as “locker-room talk.” It’s as if, in this new era, words really don’t mean anything, and we should dismiss the value of any given word or phrase. What kind of dialogue could possibly arise from that?

Believe your own eyes. There’s a reason police officers are now being equipped with body cameras, or private investigators take photos of people in compromising positions. We believe what our eyes (and ears, nose, etc.) tell us. By and large, we should: they’re pretty reliable. So we consider video and photographs compelling evidence.

Yet so often, when confronted with video of himself saying something, Mr. Trump says, “I never said that.” How can there be any room for the give-and-take of dialogue once you get to “This evidence says you said x”/”I never said x”?

The truth will set you free. While objective truth is a slippery concept—and often not the primary aim of dialogue, which may tilt more toward mutual understanding, conflict resolution, etc.—a certain dedication to the pursuit of truth can promote dialogue in compelling ways. If we aim for truth, we move beyond ourselves in pursuit of something larger. We hold our convictions more lightly to inquire what this truth might be. As a result, we are more open to hearing others’ perspectives on truth: the kind that come forth in dialogue.

It’s one thing to say we cannot ever arrive at most truths. It’s another to stop caring about truth entirely. Mr. Trump’s behavior implies that he is not concerned with the accuracy of any statement he makes. I hear this same sort of thing from some of his supporters. If we can say anything without caring if it’s true, what is our dialogue but babble?

Now weirdly, each of these corrosive trends has a healthy flipside. It’s good to take the words of another “seriously but not literally”: we do well to consider the context in which they’re said, the background of the person who says or writes them, the surrounding culture that shapes the meanings of words, etc. Similarly, it’s good to step back and consider that the “compelling video” might have a context of its own. (Plus, there’s Photoshop.) And we know the value of skepticism about truth claims.

But here’s the thing: in each of these healthy flipsides, there is one thing present that is absent from the current Trump-inspired manifestation: thought. Without thought, dialogue truly becomes babble.

I have no idea what to do with this. Perhaps we who care about dialogue will have to fight in some way for these underpinnings, to insist they be observed. Maybe we defend them at every point where we find them assailed. Maybe we simply do our own dialogue thing and thereby serve as a witness to its power in a world of degraded communication.

What do you think?

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