Sign up for newsletter

Get dialogue news by email.

Email *
First Name
We will not give your email address to anyone. Ever.
* Required Field
Let’s connect

How Not to Conduct Civic Engagement

I’m so disillusioned with my Town Board right now.

The story starts late last year. One of the newest amendments to the New York Constitution, approved by voters this past November, has paved the way for construction of up to four casinos upstate, including (probably) one in my region. Predictably, some high-powered private partnerships, together with their “host” municipalities, jumped into the competition. One of those municipalities is my town.

Now I have always thought of casinos as a terrible idea, for the usual reasons cited: gambling addiction, crime, property value decline, etc. So, during a morning with Google Scholar, I was surprised to find that the research paints a very mixed picture. Casinos can deliver economic benefits, but intensifying competition is limiting their ability to do so. Addiction is serious business, but the percentage of problem gamblers is around 1-3%. Etc.

So I was more open to the idea of a casino in my town. And I looked forward to our town leaders doing similar web searches, engaging in similar thinking, listening to constituents, and making a reasoned decision.

Apparently, it didn’t turn out that way.

First came an unannounced Town Board meeting during which the members voted unanimously to endorse a casino in the town. In the face of vocal opposition, the Board scheduled a developer presentation and one public hearing with the typical “three minutes at the mike” format. Days later, the Board took a revote, required for technical reasons, and again endorsed the casino unanimously.

Except for the first meeting, this might sound innocuous. The real fly in the ointment, though, was the lack of response to residents’ concerns exhibited throughout the process. During the public hearing, Board members said barely a word. Many of us sent detailed emails asking the Board to conduct due diligence; I (and presumably others) received a form email in return. Most communication about the casino has come from the developers, not the Board. And meeting notes, made public via a Freedom of Information request, seem to indicate that the Board served as marketing partner for the developers from the very beginning—no hint of due diligence or objective analysis whatever.

What can we learn from this?

One Board member complained about the impossible time frame for the whole bid process, let alone any attempts at dialogue or civic engagement, and she has a point. Her objection led me to the handy Engagement Streams Framework, published by the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (where I’m a board member), to see what dialogue processes might have accommodated the compressed schedule. At first glance, the pickings are somewhat slim: a scaled-up version of Conversation Café might have worked, or maybe a variant of the Wisdom Council.

In some ways, though, that’s beside the point. Even if many dialogue processes can’t happen in crunch time, basic communication can: that’s why we have the Internet.  More fundamentally, even the best and most efficient dialogue process assumes a personal orientation to listen. That was what our Board members have, from what I’ve seen, failed to demonstrate.

As a caveat: I attended most of the public meetings but not all of them. I do not know the Board members personally. They might have a compelling backstory that would make sense of their actions in a way residents could respect. Communicating that backstory might have mollified a lot of the hostility—or at least indicated the Board’s sincerity in serving its constituents.

As it is, there are a lot of questions and, in response, an unfortunate silence.

(As always, your comments are welcome. In this case, comments from Board members are most welcome. I would love to hear your take on the situation.)

I Went to a Flame War the Other Day…

…and a civil dialogue broke out.

A few weekends ago I took part in an event related to my hobby. From what I could see, it was very well run, the venue was ideal, and everything went off smoothly. Many people praised the organizers on Facebook, where our colleagues tend to gather.

Then there was Joan (not her real name). In a hobby replete with colorful eccentrics, Joan is one of the most polarizing. Many perceive her as negative, hostile, and the source of much trouble. Others get on quite well with her.

During the event in question, she took issue with one of the requirements for participation. The last night of the event, she took her frustration to Facebook in a long post that derided the organizers for their policy and many other matters.

Things quickly got out of hand. The patter at the bar was angry and occasionally unprintable. Many charges and countercharges were exchanged. The flame war spread to several Facebook pages.

At some point, a light went on in my head. Personally, I thought highly of the requirement that sparked the uproar. But despite all her bluster, I could see that Joan and her allies had a point. Maybe there was a way to make the requirement optional for certain participants—not to appease, but because the situation demanded it. So I threw the idea out there.

Almost immediately, the tone of the conversation changed. Commenters started parsing out alternatives and considering the ramifications of each. Other ideas were raised. There was a decent exchange of views.

And—this is the cool part—the people engaging in this dialogue were the very people involved in the flame war. Joan included.

My usual caveat applies: it may have been my comment that changed the tone, but this is not about me. It’s about the fact that something rather miraculous happened. But what was it? And what can we learn? A few thoughts:

  • In an emotional firestorm, a quiet, thoughtful comment has way more power than you’d expect under other circumstances. It makes room for lurkers, who may be intimidated by the hostility, to speak up. By presenting a third way (in which, hopefully, both sides can see merit), it gives the flame participants a dignified way to stand down. And it simply creates a pause, during which passions may subside. It’s a variation of “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1), unpacked.
  • For whatever reason, we (we Americans? we postmoderns? we humans? I’m not sure) quickly make most issues an either/or. The irony is that few issues actually are either/ors. There’s usually a both/and, or a third alternative, or a middle way. It saves us energy if, right from the get-go, we can look at an emerging either/or standoff and think, “What else might be a solution here? What would a both/and look like?”
  • We (this is definitely we humans) attach ourselves to so many things: our possessions, our relationships, our body image—and our convictions. There are times at which upholding and defending our convictions is of the utmost importance. But many things we attach to are, in the grand scheme of things, peripheral. Buddhism has long articulated the value of non-attachment, and I think it applies here. If we can approach our ideas and opinions with non-attachment, we can be more flexible in letting them go when the situation requires it.

What do you think? What lessons do you draw from this story? Feel free to share here.

 

How Can Civic Infrastructure (Whatever That Is) Help Dialogue?

Lately I’ve been writing about civic infrastructure here.

Civic what now, you say? Don’t worry; it’s still a new term. If, however, you’re seriously interested in dialogue, you’ll want to know about civic infrastructure, as there’s a ton of buzz in the field about it these days.

Think of it this way. Every town or city needs physical infrastructure: roads, bridges, water mains, sewage lines, power transmission, etc. Similarly, every town or city needs civic infrastructure:  community groups, meetings, activities, etc., that bring people together to address their challenges.

In other words, civic infrastructure brings people together for dialogue.

That’s what happened with Columbia Parents for Public Schools (CPPS).  The public schools in Columbia, Missouri, enjoyed a stellar reputation until the late 1990s, when that perception came under attack from several quarters. CPPS was founded to restore the schools’ image and, as part of that, to foster dialogue among people across local constituencies. The resulting success has made CPPS a model of how civic infrastructure can enhance dialogue—and, in the process, move a city forward.

You can read the full story on the blog of CommunityMatters, a partnership that equips cities and towns to re-create themselves, strengthen their places, and inspire change. It’s the first in a series I’ll be writing there about examples of this critical piece of creating dialogue. Have a look.

Dialogue, Our Deepest Convictions, and a Knock on the Head

Lately I’ve been drawing lines in the sand.

This is not like me. Being a dialogue guy, I tend to hear news reports and imagine the complexity of an issue, the not-unreasonableness of all sides, the way in which my view could be wrong.

But suddenly, when yet another sexual assault charge goes south, I think, “This has got to stop.” When NPR reports the Department of Defense’s research into robots that can wage war, all I can think is “No, no, NO.” Damn the subtleties of the individual case. It’s time to take a stand.

Part of this, I think, is the concussion. Last month, I went headfirst into the snow while cross-country skiing and sustained what, in the grand scheme of things, is probably a mild concussion. Whatever mild means. As is typical of concussions, symptoms seem to come and go at random, you go two steps forward and one step back, it can take weeks to make progress.

I know what this sounds like. It sounds like the concussion made me unable to handle nuance—clear evidence that drawing lines in the sand is the domain of stupid people.

But obviously that’s wrong. Some of our brilliant thinkers have written about the power of convictions and not giving ground. (Shameless plug: I wrote about two of these thought leaders recently, both theologians, and how their thinking about “convicted civility” doesn’t go quite far enough.)

And the more I write, the more appreciation I have for the value of convictions. They represent, in many cases, a lifetime of wrestling with ideas. They form an important part of what we bring to the world. At the same time, I’m all too aware of the destructive power of holding one’s convictions with an iron grip, impervious to other ideas or even hard data.

Maybe what I’m saying is this:

Maybe my line in the sand is not conviction so much as it is impulse: not impulse as in impulse buying, but impulse as an involuntary reflex of the soul. Such an impulse would come from an unutterably deep place within us—a place common to all of us. We respond from this place when we think of children abused by sexual predators, or Syrian civilians caught in a barbaric crossfire, or frail people with no support system and nowhere to go.

The impulse says: Something is wrong here, and must be made right.

This impulse does not remove the importance of hearing all sides, of considering the nuances of each individual case. But it is a cry for universal values among us: a cry for justice, a cry for compassion, a cry for community.

In fact, sometimes the impulse shapes the dialogue. Example: Many state pension funds are losing the ability to fulfill their obligations to retired employees. On one level, this issue comes down to math: if you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money, and retirees will have to find another way. But I hear the impulse saying: dammit, Government, you made a promise to these people, and promises must be kept. Suddenly we have two powerful, countervailing forces—one a function of cold hard realities, the other a function of moral imperative—and thus a place to start a robust dialogue.

This is new to me, and yet a very, very old idea in general. (Look at how zealous the God of the Bible is about making things right.) What do you think? How does all this fit together?

Interfaith Dialogue in One’s Own House

Sometimes, when we least expect it, we are called to live out what we say or think. Some people do this very, very well.

Professor Paul F. Knitter had explored and taught interfaith dialogue for many years when his wife converted from the Catholic faith they shared to Buddhism. As he writes, it was not enough for him to accept his wife’s change of heart. It was not even enough to actively affirm it. He had to engage her newfound faith—and let it reshape his own. What happened as a result is one of the best illustrations of dialogue’s possibilities that I’ve seen. So I will get out of the way and let Professor Knitter tell you his story.

Introverts, Shoeshines, and Doing Difficult Things (Like Dialogue)

Two wildly different stories from last weekend, and what they might teach us about dialogue:

The introverts’ lunch. I just spent four days in Chicago at Live It Out, the 2014 conference of the Gay Christian Network. The structure of this conference was unusual: the occasional plenary session or workshop block surrounded by large swaths of time to connect with others in the LGBTQIA community.

Something about this format played right into my limitations. My inner introvert simply couldn’t figure out how to flow with the informality of it all. I felt lost and awkward and unsure how to proceed.

Thank God for the whiteboards. Anyone could pick up a magic marker and scrawl out a message, invitation, tip, or what have you on these boards. Many established groups had posted their get-togethers.

Inspired (quite literally, I believe), I posted the suggestion of an introverts’ lunch.

Apparently it caught the eye of other introverts: when lunchtime came, and I arrived at the designated meeting place, four people were waiting. We had a wonderful time at the Rockit Bar & Grill. (Travel tip: if you like butternut squash soup, you must try Rockit’s.) Contrary to stereotypes of introversion, the conversation never flagged. And somehow, from that lunch, I gathered whatever it took to flow with the rest of the conference.

Shoeshine Ken. There’s something about Chicago’s street people that I’ve missed in other major cities: rather than beg, a number of them sell. One (may or may not have been a street person, but he approached me on the street) sold me his demo hip-hop CD. Another asked me to buy postcards to fund a mission.

And then, walking down Michigan Avenue, I heard this gravelly voice remarking on my boots and how I should clean them. Before I knew it, Shoeshine Ken had squirted some lotion on my footwear and was telling me, alternately, about his life and the need for good shoe care.

I know, I know. You’re “supposed to” ignore these folks. But if I had, I would have missed one of the richest experiences of my weekend. For about 20 minutes, Ken and I talked about the geography of being homeless in Chicago. I heard about Lower Wacker (under which many people sleep at night), social services for homeless people, the value of a good heating grate in subzero weather, and how Ken plies his trade where many wealthy people and their shine-eligible shoes pass by.

So here’s what these stories are teaching me to do:

  • Talk with anyone. Everyone. The famous conference speaker has something to teach us, to be sure. But so does the hesitant introvert, the young person wrestling with gender identity, the homeless entrepreneur. Yes, there can be safety issues, and one should keep oneself safe. But if you can manage it, don’t let the opportunity pass by.
  • Find a way that works for you. In many situations, it’s not just about screwing up courage to talk with people or join a group lunch or what have you. More often it’s about creating structures, like the introverts’ lunch, where dialogue can take root. These structures can be practical, like strategies, or they can be internal, like the transformation of our hearts toward curiosity and compassion.

That second point teaches me something else too: something broader. Dialogue is difficult. Life is difficult. Sometimes, like many homeless people, we can do very little on our own to improve our situations. But sometimes—as with me and my introverts’ lunch, or Ken and his shoeshine business, or adversaries in a delicate dialogue—we can do something. And that something can occasionally make a big impact.

It’s the beauty of our species: our innate ability to do things—things that foster not only dialogue, but the fruitfulness of our lives.

More to the News Story than Meets the Eye

It doesn’t feel good to criticize The PBS NewsHour. The program is one of my favorite sources of news and insight; the producers take extraordinary care in selecting guests for each segment, bringing together experts that together present a careful, balanced, in-depth analysis.

This past Friday, though, one segment disturbed me—and, in the process, served to remind me of the need for a “balanced media diet.”

The story concerned the recent violence in Iraq’s Anbar province, and the role of al-Qaeda therein. I was delighted with their choice of guests: former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and former Marine Captain Bing West, who spent a great deal time in Anbar and has written extensively on the war.

The longer they talked, though, the less I could escape the nagging sense that a huge part of the story was missing.

This nagging sense didn’t come in a vacuum. Last September, at a conference on communication and conflict, I heard a penetrating analysis by Ahmed Hassin, a researcher at Australia’s Deakin University, on the role of traditional clans in supporting the nascent democracy in Iraq. Ahmed’s presentation astounded me with a level of nuance that is almost impossible to find in American reporting on the Middle East.

That nuance haunted me as I listened to the NewsHour guests. So I decided to take a look at Iraqi news sources to see what they had to say.

Sure enough, there was a lot more to this story than met the eye.

Crocker and West spoke confidently about al-Qaeda overplaying its hand, the clans united against al-Qaeda, and even “good guys” and “bad guys.” Aswat al Iraq and Iraq Daily described Sunni-Shiite tensions over the lack of Sunni representation in government, security forces’ breakup of a Sunni protest site, the resignation of 44 Members of Parliament over said breakup, etc.

Were Crocker and West wrong? Not necessarily. It’s hard to dispute calling al-Qaeda “the bad guys,” of course. Widespread clan resistance to al-Qaeda may still be in place. Still, the Iraqi news media made it clear that the situation is more nuanced—and perhaps less boldly optimistic—than the NewsHour guests described it.

The point here is not so much to sort out the “real story” in this specific situation as it is to point out the value of the “balanced media diet”: news from sources diverse in terms of geography, nationality, political orientation, culture, even ethnicity and gender. When we absorb this diversity of news, we see that few stories are as simple as one news segment from a single source will make them appear. Certainly few stories are as simple as partisans make them out to be.

Once we see the depth and nuance behind an issue, we realize what we know and, more important, how much we don’t know. This realization, in turn, can fuel our curiosity—and our willingness to hear others whose views may not be the same as ours. Over time, we start looking for depth and nuance in other issues, which gives rise to nagging discomfort like the type I felt during the NewsHour segment.

Have you ever noticed this? Did a news story leave you with the feeling that something was wrong, or at least incomplete? Feel free to share your story here.

Why We Must Listen, and Listen, and Listen Again

This isn’t about aural listening per se, but I think the lesson still applies.

Today my church’s lectionary (a fixed order of sacred texts for each day of the year) prescribed the reading of Matthew 19:1-12, in which Jesus speaks out on divorce. In keeping with the monastic tradition that I’m associated with, Igive these lectionary passages a slow, contemplative reading, listening to how the passage speaks to my heart more than my head.

The first time through, the liturgy from weddings past echoed in my mind: “That which God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” The second time through, I heard what I’ve always heard in this passage: Jesus holds marriage as sacred, regards divorce as a necessary evil, and has some tough words about remarrying—the sort of thing that does not go down well when your country’s divorce rate hovers around 40 percent.

Something, though, made me linger.

As I wandered through a third time, another insight emerged. Nearly every reference has to do with a man divorcing his wife—not the other way around. As noted in Breakthrough: The Bible for Young Catholics, “Women in Jesus’ culture had very few rights and were basically considered the property of their husbands.” A divorced woman would have been extremely vulnerable economically and socially.

Maybe this passage isn’t about divorce in general, then. Maybe it’s about men and the imperative for them to treat their partners with reverence—along with the implicit message that the women they thought were their property really are much more.

So which interpretation is correct? Both? Neither? I can’t tell you for sure—even the notes in my Bibles don’t agree. The point here, though, is this:

There’s a risk in thinking we’ve listened enough. Just when we think we “get it”—whether “it” is the meaning of a familiar sacred text, the situation of a friend in crisis, or the experience of historically oppressed groups—we may suddenly stumble upon a deeper perspective, or a whole new level of nuance, or a different side to the issue that has completely escaped us. Which calls us to listen first, last, and always.

In any isolated instance, of course, we may have to wrap up our listening for reasons of time or schedule. But we’re on thin ice in thinking we’ve “arrived” at enlightenment on any given issue and therefore need listen no more.

***

As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been away from this page for a couple of months. One reason for that involves a difficult experience that I’m starting to think—and write—my way through; you’ll see more on that in cyberspace over the next weeks and months. Another reason has to do with the strategic planning I’ve been doing with regard to The Dialogue Venture. As a result of that planning, you will probably see more of me in places like HuffPost Religion and, I hope, the Christian Century blog (my first post for them—yay!—is here) and the Doing Dialogue blog for the Public Conversations Project and various other places. Because I’m only one person, though, that means I’ll be blogging here on an occasional basis rather than the weekly or biweekly articles I’ve posted till now. Please feel welcome to stay in touch, watch this page, and check my screed elsewhere on the web too.

When the Givens Aren’t Given

Think of something you accept as a given: a universal truth, “just the way it is.”

Now ask yourself this: is there any chance that your given is not universal? What would it take to make you see it differently? What might happen if you did?

At the beginning of this month, I had the pleasure of attending the 3rd Global Conference on Communication and Conflict, sponsored by Inter-Disciplinary.Net. About 25 scholars came and presented from all over the world. We heard about topics from media in Brazil to terrorism in Indonesia, from active listening techniques to the role of the human heart in communication. It was brilliant, warm, and collegial.

And it challenged some of my universals in ways I never could have anticipated. Consider these tidbits:

  • Remember the flap over Somali pirates a few years back? (If you don’t, you soon will, given the upcoming movie.) If ever there were a clear case of good vs. evil, this was it, right? Not so fast: according to Sarah Craze of the University of Melbourne (Australia), the pirates see themselves not as raiding on the high seas, but rather as safeguarding the marine rights and economic security of their clans in a stateless society. Most telling is the Somali word for these “pirates,” which translates to something like “coast guard.”
  • For those of us in the U.S., it is easy to hear “Arab tribes” and immediately add the word warring—as if warring is all Arab tribes did. But Ahmed Hassin, who teaches at Deakin University, detailed the essential role of Iraqi tribes in managing conflict and preserving what stability there is in the country after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
  • Richard Harris of Japan’s Chukyo University spoke about the spaces—physical, cultural, geographic, etc.—in which communication takes place. In the process, he discussed profound variations among regional understandings of what we might think of as givens. Take, for instance, the concept of home: for billions of people, it’s not a single-nuclear-family dwelling with a dog and a yard.

It is tempting to read these papers and wonder whether the whole notion of universals is obsolete. Personally, I wouldn’t go that far. The overwhelming majority of the world, for instance, has come to the point of asserting that murder, human sacrifice, and slavery are wrong. Monastics and mystics across many traditions seem to agree that compassion, self-giving, and a concern with equity lie at the heart of the divine essence. Neither of these examples is ironclad, but they are enough, I think, to render “everything is relative” overly simplistic.

The point here, though, is that there are fewer universals than we think. And few things open our eyes to this more convincingly than dialogue across boundaries of culture, geography, ethnicity, and faith. The encounter with something radically different from our own world, when heard open-heartedly, can dislodge us from our certainties. We realize that “even where I am sure, I could be wrong.”

Once that door to uncertainty cracks open, we can suddenly hear our dialogue partner’s radically different viewpoint clearly. More than that, we want to hear it clearly. We are poised to hear her explanation, what she might have to say, what ramifications may arise, how it might affect or expand our own wisdom. It is an exhilarating moment if we let it be.

It is not easy to react this way. But it is tremendously rewarding. And the connections it creates can lead to mutual understanding, a slightly better understanding of the truth, and one extra brick in the foundation of peacemaking across divides.

Hard Questions from the Dialogue Trenches: When the Other Side Is Wrong

I cherish the difficult questions that readers and listeners raise. Occasionally, though, a question goes from difficult to cringeworthy, and it takes me to places I don’t want to go.

A listener to my New Dimensions radio interview posed one of these queries:

What if the two different opinions [in a dialogue] are at such intense odds with each other that there can be no middle ground to achieve any sort of mutual progress? For instance if I were speaking to an individual who was a member of NAMBLA, there would be zero desire to understand his position more deeply. It’s wrong, whatever his position is…period.

I had never heard of NAMBLA, so I did an online search and found myself face-to-face with the North American Man-Boy Love Association. That’s when I cringed. YIKES. Talk about pushing the point.

Truth be told, I’m not ready for a dialogue on this topic. For one thing, a central practice related to this organization is illegal throughout the U.S. For another, the whole topic strikes a lot of raw nerves for me, including some from my faith tradition. My book includes a couple of chapters on when dialogue fails—or, perhaps better, when we fail at dialogue—and for me, this may be an example of failure.

So is the questioner right? Is zero dialogue on this topic the way to go here? Is zero dialogue with such a person the way to go? At all times, in all places, for all people? I’m still not sure. Here’s the gist of my response:

Yes, particularly from the vantage point of a worldview such as Christianity, some things are wrong. More broadly, there’s a general (if not universal) consensus about the evil of certain actions: murder comes to mind. With that baseline, I still see value in dialogue even with people whose practices and opinions are noxious to us, for a few reasons:

  1. We can disagree vehemently on one issue and yet agree—and even work together—on other issues. If our NAMBLA member had a wealth of knowledge on providing services to the homeless, and I was passionate about homeless issues, would it not be worth exploring whether we could collaborate despite our differences over NAMBLA?
  2. Dialogue allows us to understand what we oppose in greater depth—and thus oppose it more persuasively and more effectively. However, that leads us to the next point (and hear me correctly here):
  3. Truth isn’t always what we think it is. Remember when faithful Christians thought the holy words of Scripture approved the practice of slavery, or the subjugation of women? Now, I don’t ever want to come out of a dialogue with, say, Bashir Assad thinking that the use of chemical weapons is a good thing. But there are many other instances in which authentic dialogue, where we listen to the other person openheartedly, can move us closer to a greater understanding of the truth—whether or not that truth is what the other person is saying.
  4. We dialogue with other people because, no matter how noxious their opinions, we share at least one common bond with them: we are all human beings, worthy of being valued in our humanness as God’s creatures. Here the command of Jesus to “love [even] our enemies” is evident in all its implications—from the profound depth of its compassion to its equally profound capacity to make us squirm.

I can’t say that these points leave me in a comfortable space—not in this instance, anyway. But dialogue has never promised us comfort and ease. It does offer a way forward with our fellow human beings, however right, wrong, or otherwise they may be. It offers a way to practice the most fundamental imperative of nearly every wisdom tradition: compassion.