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Archive for the ‘Dialogue and Civility’ Category

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.

 

A Miracle in Sonoma?

Sometimes, when we talk less, it’s amazing what we hear.

One highlight of my trip to San Francisco last month (to promote the book) was the chance to take part in “5 White Guys Talk about God,” a panel hosted by psychotherapist, author, and good friend Katy Byrne. (The title was strictly tongue-in-cheek.) When Katy heard I was coming west, she approached four of her clergy friends about holding a freewheeling “God conversation” in a local café. The six of us agreed that, in total, we’d talk for about 25% of the time, and let attendees take the other 75%.

Boy, was that a good call.

The comments from the audience came fast and from all over the map. One college-age church member discussed the active hostility to religion among people in her generation. Several ex-Catholics told us how badly the Church had treated them; several current Catholics traced their love of the faith to their childhoods. We heard from a man who has traveled the world to live with people in myriad faith traditions, and a woman who recently walked over coals for the first time. One fellow told us about the healings—and raisings of the dead—in his church.

It felt miraculous. Mostly, it inspired me to think about hunger—the emotional and existential kinds.

I sensed, for instance, a hunger for things of the spirit. Very few topics can draw 50 people to an indoor space on a luminous Sunday evening, as this one did. Moreover, the participants had clearly lived with and thought deeply about God, or at least the idea of God; I could hear the wisdom in even the most “ordinary” stories.

Take the Catholic who grew up in terror of missing Mass and committing mortal sin—until she realized her oh-so-devout mother never went to Mass. When asked, her mom replied, “Your father works very hard all week long, and he deserves a nice big family meal on Sundays. It’s my job to make that meal for all of you.” (Can we go so far as to call it her vocation?)

I also sensed a hunger for dialogue—and more capacity for doing dialogue than I might have thought. No one yelled. No one disparaged another’s faith. We mostly told stories from our experience and shared the view from our piece of the world. Precisely what you would expect in authentic dialogue.

Most fundamentally, though, I sensed a hunger to be heard. I wonder how much this hunger pervades all of us. We have these fascinating stories that are our stories, our contribution to the world. Many of us are, deep down, bursting to tell them—and they could make a difference in someone’s life if we do. Yet we have fewer and fewer places to tell our stories, thanks to the manic pace of modern life and our excessive individualism and a hundred other factors.

All of these hungers surfaced in one Sonoma café on one night. Seeing them filled, even if in part, was profoundly moving. It was a night that deserves celebration—a small sign of hope in a world that needs it.

Dialogue When the Sparks Fly

Bad moods and Facebook are generally a lousy mix. We’ve all heard warnings about that. In most cases, I can back away from the keyboard long enough to calm down.

Sunday was different. As you might expect, it left me with some lessons for dialogue.

The dustup started when a Facebook friend—someone who consistently posts intelligent comments—called my hobby “boring.” I instantly turned into a little ball of indignation, and I let her have it. No cussing, mind you, no personal remarks, but a lot of capital letters and exclamation points.

As soon as I hit Send, I felt queasy about it. Expressions of anger do not come easily to me, and I always feel the need to apologize immediately afterward. This time, though, I felt I had a point, so rather than a mea culpa, I sent another, calmer comment explaining myself.

About 15 minutes later, a third person raised the notion that I may have misinterpreted the original comment. My Facebook friend wasn’t calling my hobby boring; she was relaying a popular perception about my hobby.

Whoops. OK, now an apology makes sense.

So, what does this have to do with dialogue? Three things come to mind:

  1. Our raw nerves can surprise us. Yes, I love my hobby, but I had no clue it was a hot button until someone hit it. In the same way, we may set off an angry reaction from someone else when we least expect it. The lesson here for all participants, I think, is to stop, breathe, observe the reaction, and either try to discover the source or set the reaction aside for reflection later. That can help us continue the dialogue by short-circuiting any cycle of hostility that may emerge.
  2. Not every communication is crystal clear. Obviously. We’ve all been cautioned to choose our words carefully when emailing or posting to social media, because people can’t hear tone of voice, or read body language, or even pick up proper context in electronic media. Even when we think we’re crystal clear—and I’m sure my friend thought she was—there’s always the chance of misunderstanding. Being awake to that chance enables us to hold our words lightly and respond thoughtfulness when someone misconstrues our thinking.
  3. Dialogue isn’t always “nice.” Some people see dialogue as a way to dodge conflict, or avoid having convictions, or be otherwise mushy of thinking. Nonsense. In dialogue, we can express ourselves forcefully; we can channel our anger into our words. It is a powerful way to communicate to our dialogue partners that “I care deeply about this.” The trick is to frame our vehemence so our partners understand the context and intensity level from which we’re speaking. A simple introductory statement, such as “Pardon me, I may get emotional about this,” prepares the other people involved and allows them to respond from a place of understanding rather than knee-jerk hostility. Precision of language is essential here. So is the ability, on the receiving end, to stop, breathe, and hear the message behind the anger, rather than respond in kind.

What about you? What other lessons would you have drawn from this conflict? What have you learned from your own dustups with people? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Yeah, but YOUR Candidate…

This pattern has probably been around since the first election. My sense, though, is that we’re hearing more of it than usual. See if you agree.

Imagine that I have decided to vote for Barack Obama and you have decided to vote for Mitt Romney. We’re having coffee one day, and you say something critical about Obama. At this point, I have several options. I can mull over what you just said, determine whether it has merit in my opinion, and respond to you directly. That comes closest to dialogue.

I could also defend the president against the criticism you made. Though that leans more toward debate or conversation than dialogue, it could lead to a healthy, vigorous exchange of views. We might both gain some insight from it.

A third option seems to be the most popular these days. In response to your criticism of Obama, I respond instantly with a criticism of Romney. My point may not even cover the same topic as your point. Perhaps you criticized Obamacare and I disparage Romney’s vast wealth.  In essence, we stop talking with each other, or even to each other, and start talking past each other.

OK, so this third option does come with the territory of politics. But at times, it seems to be all I hear—not only from folks like us, but from the candidates themselves. While they have certainly spent time laying out their basic positions (the viability of these positions, and the unspoken details, are quite another matter), there just seems to be a higher percentage of trash talk in the air.

And that leads me to wonder: do we have so little to say in favor of our own candidates that we have no choice but to trash the other candidate?

There may be something to this. Both candidates, as we discussed last week, have substantial flaws. Many Republicans have found it difficult to generate enthusiasm for Romney. Many Democrats are disillusioned with Obama. This is too bad, because (as we also discussed last week) both candidates have considerable qualifications. We could do—and have done—much worse.

The issue with the high percentage of other-candidate-trashing, from what I can see, is that it saps our energy, heightens our cynicism, and sharpens our divides, leaving us with few personal resources to do the hard work of democracy (i.e., to participate actively in improving our civic and community life).  A civil delineation of differences, on the other hand, can enlighten us. And a description of a candidate’s strengths and accomplishments might even inspire us to think that, maybe, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if said candidate got into office.

Are you hearing this too? More than the usual percentage of trash talk? I’d love to hear your perspective, so feel free to share it here (or on Facebook).

When a Dialogue on Guns Breaks Out—or Two or Three

Sometimes people inspire the hell out of me. That includes some of you over the past three weeks.

In my last post—shortly after the horrific shootings in Aurora, Colorado—I posed a few questions for people on both sides of the ongoing debate over gun ownership.  The public square was abuzz with many of the typical catchphrases and hostilities that typically pervade this debate. I was hoping that maybe these questions could spark a dialogue.

Boy, did they ever.

A small but dedicated group of people responded with the most thoughtful comments I’ve seen on the topic. One or two of them are involved in the field of dialogue and deliberation; the rest are people I know from other parts of my life. Most people restated their long-held positions, but at a level of detail and consideration that provided plenty of insight for me—and, I hope, anyone reading these comments.

Just in case you weren’t privy to these conversations, I want to share them with you. Take a look at the comments below. Then go to my Facebook page (the Timeline version) and scroll down or search the word questions or gun. Let me know if you can’t find it, and I’ll try to direct you to where it is. (Facebook technology sometimes eludes me.)

Thank you to those who have contributed. And believe me, it’s not too late. Please jump in.

Maybe We Shouldn’t Write Them Off Just Yet

Earlier this summer, I had a run-in with one of our neighbors. He inquired about a matter that he saw as an affront to his property rights. (It was. My wife had an agreement with his wife, but…well, it’s a long story.) I asked him a clarifying question, but my tone of voice was all wrong, and in hindsight I can see why he heard it as he did. Things escalated quickly. Expletives were used. I quickly walked away.

In my mind, however, I took one more step.

Incidents like this completely unglue me, and I usually react by writing the person off. This was no exception. I did everything I could not to cross the property line anymore. I didn’t even allow myself to look in their yard (except furtively, on occasion). In essence, I sealed this fellow off from my consciousness.

I started revisiting this run-in during our conversation about last week’s post. Several of you wrote about people who had approached you not just with adamant opinions, but with hostility and vitriolic words. You talked about keeping silence and just walking away.

This type of situation comes up a lot in discussions I’ve had about dialogue. People use it to point out the limits of dialogue, and I agree. In the short term, clamming up and walking away is the best part of wisdom. Our intensity is so strongly engaged that we probably will not present our views in the best or most dialogic light. We may well end up saying things we don’t mean. And even if we could explain ourselves calmly, our adversaries are not at all inclined to hear us.

But that’s not all I did. By writing off my neighbor, I excluded him from playing any role whatever in my life. I also eliminated the possibility of enjoying a peaceful neighborly relationship with him. The best I could hope for was a tense standoff, an uneasy (if permanent) truce.

I’m not the only one who does this. Look at our public square: not only do we argue with the “other side,” we dismiss the notion that they could have anything valuable to say to us. In the process, we dismiss them as people. We lose out on the wisdom that they carry within themselves, and we miss the opportunity for a peaceful—and who knows? maybe even fruitful—relationship.

Several weeks after our run-in, a house caught fire on our block, and neighbors gathered. My wife found herself standing right next to my adversary and his wife. They fell to chatting, and lo and behold, she discovered that he’s actually a good guy. But I, with my stance toward him, would never have found out.

Sometimes, particularly when our safety is at stake, we have no choice but to write someone off. In our culture at large, however, we err on the side of doing so too quickly. What might happen if we held open the channel between us and our adversaries a bit longer?

Keeping Civil in an Angry World

In case you’re wondering…the manuscript for Why Can’t We Talk? Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (available this fall from SkyLight Paths) was due June 29. Between that, my full-time job, and a few dialogue-related events, I never succeeded in finding a moment to blog. My apologies! The schedule is now returning to something like normal, thanks be to God. So, to get back on track…

 

It was only one word in an entire column. It wasn’t even a particularly important word. Yet it captured, in a nutshell, why I see dialogue as a matter of the heart.

Not too long ago, The Times Union ran an engaging profile of Rev. James Martin—a Jesuit priest, writer, and thinker—by one of its bloggers, Fran Rossi Szpylczyn. Right in the middle of the piece, Szpylczyn mentioned Martin’s pleasant and easygoing personality.

“With an ever-present smile, he is clever, yet perpetually charitable,” Szpylczyn wrote. “This alone is remarkable in a media culture where verbal swords are wielded in the name of some kind of justice or truth. Not for this priest. He is dedicated to keeping the conversation frank, but civil, at all times.”

There it was. Keeping. Keeping the conversation civil. It implied an attempt to restrain something powerful and potentially havoc-wreaking, as in “keep your temper,” “keep your head about you,” or “keep the children from running amok.”

Why should we have to keep conversation civil?

Because civility is not our instinct. Our instinct, rather, is toward defensiveness, anger, and debate. When people take issue with us, we often turn up the volume, which makes us appear more authoritative or more intimidating. To paraphrase Szpylczyn, we wield verbal swords.

Why do we lead with this reaction? Perhaps we’ve learned it over millennia of conflict with different people, tribes, and nations. Quite likely, it reflects our nature as a species, as exemplified in the fight-or-flight response.

This is where spirituality can help. Many of the world’s faith traditions focus on inner transformation: a fundamental turning away from self-centered concerns and toward an ultimate concern—which many people, me included, identify as God. As we turn toward God with our whole being, God transforms our whole being from the inside out. Transforms it into what? Faith traditions are well aligned on that too: toward compassion, toward wisdom, toward peacemaking.

Toward others.

When we practice this type of spirituality long enough, intently enough, our first reaction begins to change. We find ourselves instinctively reacting, not with hostility and defensiveness, but with curiosity, open-mindedness, compassion. Reflecting the God who embraces all, we start to embrace all—not just as an external practice, but as an impulse of the heart.

As a result, we no longer have to keep the conversation civil—because we already are civil. It becomes our nature.

And how much change can that make in the other? As it is written, “A soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1). If enough of us practice this spirituality, we can turn away wrath more broadly, on a larger scale. Maybe, just maybe, we can change the tone of our cultural and national conversations.

Certainty from the Left?

When I think of people who are certain of their beliefs—no possibility of compromise—certain strains of conservative come to mind. My conservative friends, however, tell me that progressives can be just as certain.

I think I’ve found a case in point: a compelling article by Candace Chellew-Hodge. In “Smashing Our Idols,” Chellew-Hodge—a pastor and editor of an online magazine for LGBT Christians—muses on her interactions with David Gushee, an evangelical and professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University.

The thinking from both parties is remarkable for its civility and nuance. Gushee makes clear that, while he is currently opposed to “all sexual acts outside of heterosexual marital acts,” the question requires a rethinking on his part, and that process is ongoing. Chellew-Hodge, meanwhile, affirms the humanity of people on the “other side,” is glad to have allies like Gushee with which to dialogue, and stresses the importance of patience.

I wish all interactions between adversaries were like this. It could easily serve as a model for the whole Church. One piece of it, though, doesn’t quite sit well with me: Chellew-Hodge’s sense of certainty—and what that might do to the dialogue. She writes:

…we must give people time and space to come to the side of full equality. Those who are making an honest effort, like Gushee, must be applauded and nurtured – not attacked. In the same manner, we who want full, unconditional inclusion in church and society need to be in relationship with people like Gushee so we can encourage them to keep whacking at the statues of exclusion and oppression until they are finally gone.

Her underlying assumption, as I read it, is that she is on the right side of the issue, and that the most gracious thing she can do is to “be in relationship with people like Gushee” until they come around.

Just for clarity’s sake, I happen to believe—passionately—that she is on the right side of the issue. I hope to God that the Church continues to move in the direction of welcoming all people. But authentic dialogue, as I see it, requires one more step than Chellew-Hodge has taken: a suspension of one’s preconceptions—however temporarily. Only with that step, I believe, can we be fully open to the other.

Suspending one’s preconceptions is a nod to one of humanity’s most fundamental realities: “I don’t know.” We may believe with passion. That passion may be enough (in some cases, it must be enough) for us to wrap our lives around the conviction and even attempt to steer the world in that direction. But especially in matters of the spirit, we know nothing. While this bedrock reality may not play a huge role in our daily lives, we can best extend compassion and a listening ear to the other if we enter dialogue with it in mind.

What would happen in a dialogue entered this way?  We could create a space in which, no matter how much we disagree, we can listen for the value in the other’s perspective and for how it might make our own thinking better. It’s unlikely I will ever adopt Gushee’s current stance carte blanche, but if I am fully open to it, I might hear more about the values beneath it and how they resonate with my own thinking. Maybe what happens is that I reaffirm my current thinking on LGBT issues but reimagine the place of spiritual intimacy and commitment in it.

Dialogue rarely changes a participant’s position completely or instantly. In many cases, that’s not the point. The point is, more often, to grow together in love and reconciliation and to accumulate wisdom wherever we can find it. Goodness knows, we can all use more wisdom.

Dialogue and Christmas—the Holidays—Whatever

We’ve talked a lot about the need for precise language, in dialogue and out. Our dialogues could be so much more productive if we avoided sidetracking them with inflammatory or inaccurate words. Conversely, precise language gives us the best chance of conveying our ideas more clearly to people who might not share or be familiar with them. It is in the spirit of precision that I now wish you:

Happy Holidays.

Every year around this time, there’s a certain level of fuss about that phrase. “It’s the Christmas season, dammit!” goes the line of thought. “Jesus is the reason for the season! Why can’t we just say Merry Christmas?” Happy Holidays, to people who argue this way, is too vapid, too “politically correct,” to describe what December is really about.

I’ll admit that Happy Holidays is kind of vapid. Because of my faith tradition, Christmas is a treasured holy day for me. At church on Christmas Eve, I will be delighted to wish my fellow parishioners Merry Christmas.

Outside of church, though, it’s a different story. The U.S., where I live, is not predominantly Christian as it once was—not by a long shot. Millions of people here are Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, followers of no faith tradition, you name it. And often (as with Hanukkah) their holidays and festivals take place in December as well.

So when I encounter people at the store, or on the street, and I don’t know their faith orientation, Happy Holidays seems the best way to greet them with good cheer while respecting their beliefs about life. If I’m addressing a group—either physically present or virtually, as on Facebook—it’s usually a safe bet that someone in the group doesn’t celebrate Christmas. Happy Holidays is a way of showing respect to those people too.

This is a basic principle for dialogue. Without a perception of respect from their dialogue partner, few people would willingly share their convictions in dialogue. That showing of respect creates a welcoming place in which people feel free to express themselves without fear of recrimination.

So…to my Jewish friends, Happy Hanukkah. To my Christian friends, Merry Christmas. To all my friends, Happy Holidays.

Upcoming Dialogue: LGBT Issues and the Christian Church

When a pillar of our quasi-evangelical church came out in 1989, I had just started rethinking the whole issue of gender, sexuality, and the Bible. So I was not prepared for how torturous the resulting church discussion would be.

Partly because of this event, LGBT people and issues have been dear to my heart ever since.  Perhaps this was God’s way of preparing me to become an Episcopalian—a Christian denomination riven by hostility over LGBT issues. Perhaps it was God’s sense of humor that placed me in my specific corner of The Episcopal Church: a liberal (i.e., welcoming-to-LGBT-people) church in a conservative diocese in a liberal national church in a conservative worldwide church.

But wait, there’s more. Once a year, I serve as a representative from our church to the diocese’s convention—which makes me a quasi-liberal surrounded by ardent conservatives.

This is a tense and painful place to live. To be sure, I am one of many comrades in this place: a sort of no-man’s-land in the culture wars. But we are outnumbered—and surely outshouted—by those on either side.

So why would anyone in his right mind continue to live there?

Here’s why I do: Because I will not abandon my LGBT sisters and brothers to a theology I find deeply flawed. Because I believe that my conservative sisters and brothers have great gifts to contribute to the world at large. Because I believe that dialogue has power. Because God calls me to peace and compassion, not to anger and the severing of relationships.

This is why I am deeply honored to have been invited to a most exceptional dialogue. Evangelicals for Social Action has asked a dozen pastors, therapists, scholars, students, writers, and “other struggling saints”—gay, straight, liberal, conservative, what have you—to a two-day conversation about LGBT issues. We will convene in November to get to know one another, share our stories, explore our perspectives, and generally live side by side for a short while.

The dialogue will not be easy. But the very fact of it thrills me. And if the emails we’ve exchanged so far are any indication, this could be something special. No one has brought up the “clobber passages” in the Bible. No one has debated genetics or biblical literalism. Instead, we’ve explored deeper issues of sexuality and gender and personal stories. Some of the participants, at least, are well versed in bridging divides. They bring rich and eye-opening experiences to the table.

If you are the sort to pray, please pray for this gathering. If not, please think of us in November. We may not change the world. But perhaps God will make us a tipping point for reconciliation—or at least one tiny example of living in peace and compassion despite our differences.