Archive for the ‘Dialogue and Current Events’ Category
Last night, BBC’s World News America led with yet another story on the suffering in Syria. I was reluctant to watch it—not because I don’t care about that horrendous conflict, but because it was yet another story.
How much news from Syria, or from anywhere, do we need? How much can we take? Is there a point at which we “get the point” and can skip the following stories with impunity? How many of the “following stories”?
Let’s start with basic attitudes toward news. For me, the news is required reading/viewing. I try to write with nuance about some difficult and complex issues, and there’s no way to do that without a great deal of input, both hard news and diverse analysis. For others, news might guide them in how to vote, which charities to support, or where to roll up their sleeves and help out.
My understanding of my faith also plays a role. It tells me that every human being bears the image of God, and that God cares deeply, massively, for those who suffer. So I’m called to care deeply for them too. The way I can connect with their stories, their situations, is (in part) through the news.
News is everywhere these days. We have 24/7 news stations. A myriad of websites are always available, always telling stories. Some of us throwbacks still get the newspaper every day.
The problem is, the macro-level stories and issues take time to develop—usually months or years. So these news media, needing something to fill the space, tell slight variations of the same story from one day to the next.
It’s a barrage.
And with each day’s news, the decision comes up again—especially in stories that involve suffering. Watch too many of these, and we risk becoming desensitized. There’s a limit to how much we can take. It’s why a lot of people either check out entirely or (as I’ve done) go on news fasts.
On the other hand, maybe the next story provides an insight I never had before. Or the story on suffering in Syria tells (as it often does) of this mother in that city who has lost x children in the conflict. If I miss the story, I lose the insight, or I fail to connect with this particular divine image bearer.
Of course, this isn’t just true of news from faraway lands. How many stories about our local homeless folks do we need to hear before the same difficult decision—to watch or not to watch this segment, on this night—faces us?
Ultimately, we make the decision story by story, day by day. And I don’t think it gets easier. Have you found a good way to absorb news stories without going to overload? How much news do you need?
My opinion on government gun policy is starting to shift. That shift fills me with dread—and the reason, I think, may say a lot about why dialogue is such a hard sell.
Let’s start with my own biases. Temperamentally, I am as close to pacifist as you can get without actually being pacifist. Guns hold no appeal for me whatever (beyond the curiosity I have about pretty much everything). I grew up on Bambi. For most of my life, then, my thoughts on gun control were pretty much a default on the pro side.
But recent events have nudged me into more reflection. My experiments with gun dialogue (last month and in 2012) put me in contact with gun owners and their stories about why they value their guns, the enjoyment of pursuits associated with guns, the security they feel in owning a gun and knowing how to use it. Moreover, after pondering the Second Amendment, I can see how the standard gun owner’s interpretation may have some merit.
Bottom line: I can still support commonsense measures like background checks and waiting periods. But now, whenever cries to reduce gun ownership permeate the public square, I can’t quite join in—as much as my Bambi instinct still wants me to.
But this post is not about guns. It’s about why the shift scares me.
There are several reasons, but one towers above them all: some of the most important people in my social network—dear friends, immediate relatives, colleagues who might influence the course of my career—are vociferously anti-gun. I can think of a family member whose wisdom and love I would not do without…a colleague whose family has suffered several murders due to gun violence…a Catholic writer who shares many of my sensibilities but whose wrath grows with each mass shooting.
Will they abandon me now that I’m expressing a different opinion, even if just slightly different?
You might argue that it’s unlikely, and you’d probably be right. But in our current culture, friends and colleagues do part ways over disagreements like this. Consider the “harmonious” traditional family that fractures when a daughter comes out as gay, or good neighbors who find themselves on opposing sides when a casino comes to town. The notion that “if they abandon you over this, they weren’t real friends (or colleagues, or loved ones) anyway” is far too simplistic.
Now consider that I feel this dread strongly enough to hold my tongue around certain people—and I’m a dialogue person. How can I expect folks who are unfamiliar with dialogue to enter in when the risk is so high: when they might lose not only their basic convictions, but even their friends? How can those of us who care deeply about dialogue demonstrate that, in fact, the reward is worth the risk?
Think of a controversial issue in the news. More likely than not, you’ve already formed opinions about it.
How did you come to those opinions?
The question keeps arising for me this month, thanks to conversations about the complex of issues surrounding violence, guns, terrorism, and Islam. Several of my “conversation partners” are people with whom I vehemently disagree; in a couple of cases their opinions are repugnant to me. If I had encountered their thoughts in passing—in a river of Facebook comments, in a tweet, in a casual remark—I might have dismissed them out of hand.
With one fellow in particular, however—an ardent anti-immigrationist who even questions the value of diversity for human community—the conversation has taken a different turn. The more he explains about his belief, the more I see how much thought he has put into it. He makes connections I never would have considered. (Who sees rigid controls on immigration as a justice issue for low-income people? He does.) He cites research. Some of his language implies that personal circumstances might fuel his ideas.
By instinct, I am a complete fruitcake on immigration. I think we should let ‘em all in. Everybody. Carte blanche. No exceptions. Or at least that should be our starting point. In that context, the conversation we’ve had has had a substantial effect. No, I am not persuaded to convert to this fellow’s opinions. But the dialogue with him has persuaded me that my conviction needs work. Perhaps a lot of work.
Seeing how he came to his opinions made the difference.
So what’s the takeaway here? Allow me to come at it in a roundabout way. It has to do, in a sense, with the power of stories.
The dialogue field is big on storytelling. When people tell their stories, we see their humanity. We can empathize with them. Storytelling takes dialogue away from the abstractions that dominate our media landscape and pushes it into context and nuance. We can start to see, in many cases, how a reasonable person might just arrive at the opinion that gives us the shivers.
What I’m wondering is whether how did you come to your opinions?—which is an invitation to tell another type of story—may also allow us to filter out the media noise.
Here’s what I mean. If I express an opinion that sounds ripped from the media headlines, and you ask how did you come to your opinion? it challenges me to probe deeper, to form and own an opinion that is more authentically mine. If I express an opinion with greater depth, your question how did you come to your opinion? encourages me to reveal that depth and (I hope) inspire you to reflect on it and respond in kind. If I’ve based my opinions on sources you find questionable, and you ask how did you come to your opinion? it allows us to go well beyond the issue at hand and into deeper questions of media and knowledge and trust.
Whatever the case, we begin to enter a dialogue and reflection that exposes our opinions to the thinking of our dialogue partner. That in turn can shape our opinions and, hopefully, bring them closer to the truth, or the heart of the matter. At the same time, we forge the type of connections that dialogue is famous for making.
Best of all, that simple question opens a door for us to leave those scripted catchphrases and simplistic media headlines far behind. We’re liberated from the “box” of those sound bites, which so often set the parameters of debate in the public square. Instead, the question moves us outside the box, and we van hear and think and feel for ourselves.
It might even be a good question for self-reflection. How do you come to your opinions? And how might this question help you make progress with that person who makes your blood boil?
Several days after our latest experiment in gun dialogue, I find myself both more hopeful and less hopeful. Fortunately, more hopeful is winning.
Last week I posed a few basic ideas that, just maybe, every person on every side of the gun debate could agree on. If we could agree, we’d have some common ground, which often inspires at least the tolerance—and sometimes the empathy—required to explore thornier issues.
The ensuing dialogue (mostly on my Facebook feed) was robust, rarely on topic, and wildly fruitful. Here are some things that I heard, thought, was surprised by, etc.:
People listened to each other. There was some “Yes I hear you but [more of my position here]” going on—which doesn’t qualify as listening—but many folks at least tried to take in the views from commenters on the other side.
The resulting exchanges were enlightening. At one point, two folks debated the definition of militia (a key word in the Second Amendment) and what relevance it might have for today’s United States. I honestly had never considered that issue in any depth.
At another point, a gun owner objected to last week’s attempts at legislation (defeated in the Senate) to inhibit sales of guns to people on government terrorist watch lists. Her objection was that the criteria for inclusion on these watch lists is not transparent. Another commenter, who favored the legislation, suggested adding a paragraph to make the criteria transparent. If these two folks could figure out a solution across their very significant divides, why couldn’t the Senate?
There is a deep, widespread sense of fear among many people in the U.S. Millions of Americans believe that their government wants to confiscate their guns. Millions of Americans are now afraid of Muslims. It is very tempting, for those of us who gravitate toward the center or left of the political spectrum, to dismiss these leanings out of hand. I suggest we sit with them a while, listen to them more intently, see how we might address them.
This is not—not—to condone xenophobia. In the midst of the Facebook dialogue, I actually had to delete a post that advocated “banning Muslims” instead of “banning guns.” I will not have my Facebook feed associated with hatred.
But maybe there’s a distinction between fear and hatred that’s worth examining. I wonder if we can make space for people to explore and express their fears, groundless or not, while confronting the all-too-easy transition from fear to hostility to hatred. I wonder if that space might actually prevent the transition from occurring.
The problem of mass violence is much, much deeper than I’d thought. The more I read on this issue, the more I wonder whether any serious approach to reducing the number of mass shootings has to involve rethinking our society on a profound level. Maybe we have to, for instance, look at our very American propensity to violence. Maybe we have to consider how our long history of individualism has eroded the very community that might deter prospective shooters. Perhaps we have to ask why so many people feel so deeply alienated. And while I hate to sound grim, I don’t think U.S. society—or any society—is up to the task. Still…
Maybe we can take steps anyway. God bless my friends: when I expressed my despair in the above paragraph, they were quick to remind me of some very basic truths. We can’t change society, but we can change ourselves. Love is the answer. (Sound simplistic? If you’ve ever tried to live it, you know it’s not.) Maybe our task now is to imagine the baby steps we can take toward a more peaceful world.
This was, of course, one conversation on one blog/Facebook feed at one point in time. But if our little agglomeration of people can have this conversation, why not others? Why not people with the power to take the baby steps, and larger ones too? Why not?
When it comes to guns, what can we all agree on?
You may think this a fool’s question, especially if you’ve spent any time with the media (print, broadcast, social, or otherwise) in the past 48 hours. We have relived, yet again, a pattern that is not only tragic but disheartening. A horrific shooting takes place. Law enforcement tries to parse out exactly what happened. In the meantime, partisans on both ends of the gun debate begin to broadcast—loudly, in take-no-prisoners language—their well-worn arguments.
Many of us stay off Facebook for a few days.
Back in 2012, after the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, we ran a little experiment about the gun issue in this space as well as on Facebook. I asked people to respond to some honest, open questions in order to explore and express their own beliefs about guns. (If you weren’t part of the original conversation, take a look at the questions and see how you’d answer them.)
The stories we shared and heard were remarkable. One person wrote about the relatives she has lost to gun violence. Another spoke in almost spiritual terms about the joy of hunting.
Oddly, we came close to agreement on a couple of things. Background checks were good. Waiting periods were good. Best of all, we left the clichés behind and actually started to talk with one another.
Today, in the wake of what happened in San Bernardino, I want to try another little experiment. Let’s see if we can lay out a few things on which we all agree. It’s not as foolish as it looks; it just means we have to go back to basics. Waaaay back. Can we, for instance, agree to the following:
- These shootings are horrible. Obvious? Of course. But stay with it awhile. Allow yourself to feel that sense of horror and sadness that comes with each news flash. Then, when you’ve done that, know this: the person on the other side of the gun debate feels it too.
- We should keep weapons away from people who plan to use them in mass shootings. This makes yesterday’s Senate votes nearly incomprehensible. Whatever the reason for those votes, however, is this statement as self-evident as I think it is?
- It can be difficult—sometimes impossible—to tell a future mass shooter from anyone else. Taken together, these folks do what they do from a dizzying array of motives. Workplace dissatisfaction. Mental illness. A deep sense of exclusion from society’s benefits. Terrorism. No one-size-fits-all solution will fit all.
- It takes time to figure out what happened. How often, after a tragedy like the shooting in San Bernardino, do we hear a police chief answer questions with “that is still under investigation”? It can take days, even weeks, to nail down the whats and whys. That makes jumping to conclusions—and, more important, acting on those conclusions—perilous.
What do you think? Can we agree on all these?
If we can, several good things can happen. Our common reactions to the horror can foster empathy: they remind us that our adversaries are, first and foremost, human. Common ground inspires hope that maybe we can work together to find more common ground—or at least places where we can compromise. If people in power take these steps, they might just find enough space to collaborate on solutions and take action.
And action to prevent another shooting is what we so desperately need. I’m betting we can all agree on that.
I asked myself this question while journaling last week. I did not expect the wild ride through my unconscious that followed.
The question has become central for me because I find myself enraged at people on the other side of the debate: the folks who want to build a wall on the Mexican border, or block Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., or press for English-only policies. That persistent rage feels corrosive to my soul, like something I need to work through.
The odd thing is that immigration issues don’t really make an impact on my daily life, at least not on a visceral level. My list of friends is rather thin on people from other countries, and none of them plan on immigrating. My part of the U.S. is not really a magnet for immigrants, as (for instance) California and the Southwest are.
In short, my rage is all out of proportion to the thing that’s triggering it. Over the years, I’ve learned to see that and ask, “What’s going on here?”
Asking that question led me to the question in the title. Why does immigration matter to me?
I started exploring the question in my journal, and it didn’t take long for all hell to break loose. My stance on immigration quickly led to my passion for welcoming everyone carte blanche into my life. That, in turn, pulled me into a whole multitude of issues around loss and grief that I have yet to fully understand. Trust me, they are large issues.
I haven’t come close to revisiting them at this point, one week later. I am not surprised, however, to discover that my iron grip on my beliefs—and the rage that accompanies it—have relaxed a bit.
Next, I imagined putting the same question to a relative who is particularly strident about immigration. I reviewed what I knew of her life situation, talked it over with my wife, and tried to gain an “empathic glimpse.” Sure enough, the answers to “why is immigration important to her?” came quickly: the healthcare benefits that her neighborhood’s immigrants can access and she can’t; the language barriers that make her life difficult because she doesn’t speak Spanish; the economic insecurity she lives with day by day.
Suddenly she seemed more, well, human. Her situation deserved some sympathy (while taking nothing away from the situation of the immigrants themselves). I had a chance, at least, of not letting this issue damage our relationship.
So now I’m wondering: what if we asked that “to you” question regularly, not only of others but, much more important, of ourselves? What if, instead of snapping off a superficial, abstract answer, we slowed down our lives and our hearts enough to consider the question in greater depth? How might the insights we uncover soften the way we approach our adversaries? Might we glimpse the humanity and perhaps the suffering behind their positions?
Is this sufficient for policymaking on an organizational level? Of course not. But I would submit that it is necessary. Asking this question, and listening for the answers, enable us to bring our whole selves to the issue at hand: not just our cerebral sides but our hearts, our shadow sides, everything that might inform a wise (not just a rational) decision.
Have you asked this question of yourself—on any issue? What happened? Feel free to share here.
Note: Occasionally I write a post for this blog, set it aside to attend to something else, and forget about it. The post below came into being shortly after the landmark Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. The time references, therefore, are off, but I think the basic points still hold, so I’m offering it now.
Every now and then, a text written centuries ago speaks almost eerily to an issue right here and now.
Take this week’s Collect of the Day from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer—a brief, structured prayer that connects with the Bible readings assigned for that day. (In case you need to use the word in conversation, it’s pronounced KAHL-lekt.)
Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the
foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself
being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together
in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a
holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,
for ever and ever. Amen.
Beneath the euphoria I’ve felt over last Friday’s Supreme Court decision (yes, I favor marriage equality), a line of questioning has lingered in the back of my mind. What now? What happens to our dialogue? More important, how do we—all of us, on all sides of this issue—continue to hold our “adversaries”?
This quandary has a lot of moving parts. In the present, supporters of marriage equality want to celebrate, and well they should. Opponents may want to grieve or express anger, and well they should. Doing either in the presence of one’s “adversary” is difficult at best: it could too easily lead to gloating from one side and churlishness from the other.
But maybe people don’t care that much whether their reactions come off that way, because they don’t plan to associate with the other side any longer. Maybe they read this Court decision as the permission they have long sought to ignore the other side—a fulfillment of the wish that the disagreers would just “go away.”
I wrote about this wish in a recent article. As tempting as it might be, it’s dangerous. Our Collect of the Day, read expansively (i.e., beyond the specifically Christian), gives some hints as to why.
- Ultimately, there is no other side. Note the verb tense in the first sentence: “you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” Cast more universally, nothing we can say or do or argue mitigates the truth that we are all humans and will all share this planet for as long as it lasts. Yes, within our species lie significant differences and dynamics that we must address. But the other side can’t go away; ultimately, there is no place for them to go
- We are called to live that reality. That’s the essence of “grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit.”
- We need help. This is, after all, a prayer—not a declaration or a promise or a resolve, but an admission that we just can’t do this “one human family” thing on our own. Christians believe that help can only come from God. However you parse it, though, the fact that we need help remains.
So what do we do? I think, in the short term, we celebrate or rail against the Court decision with our allies. It is good and right to do so. And then we keep on going with our “adversaries.” Maybe we continue the dialogue over LGBTQIA issues; maybe we don’t. But we do keep the lines open. Who knows whether, somewhere down the road, on a different issue entirely, that adversary may become your most important ally?
The sun had turned the grass a fluorescent shade of green. My wife’s tulips glowed ivory and red and yellow. Our next-door neighbor was pushing her toddler in his tree swing. A Saturday as lovely and ordinary as you can get.
I wandered over to the neighbor’s yard for a chat. I did not expect her to change my thinking about some of the hottest issues in education.
As we talked, the details of her job came out. She teaches middle school in a neighboring state. The challenges of mandated testing—Common Core and all that—are making life difficult for her, her colleagues, and her students.
That brought me to my usual place of ambivalence on Common Core.
On the one hand, it’s hard to think of a more noble profession than teaching. The teachers I know work long hours and are unflagging in their dedication. On the other hand, I can see the urgent need to equip U.S. kids to thrive in a brutally competitive world, and that may mean adding rigor to the learning experience.
On the third hand (yeah, I know), teachers’ unions leave me skeptical. In my state, at least, they wield tremendous power. They spill a ton of ink on shaping public opinion. So when I hear the buzz against Common Core, I can’t tell whether it’s the teachers talking or the unions.
As a result of this, the dark side of my brain starts wondering, maybe teachers doth protest too much. Maybe they’re too resistant to change. I don’t like those thoughts, but I don’t know enough to gauge their truth.
But then, during the chat with my neighbor, something clicked. It dawned on me that, of all the teachers I’ve talked with about Common Core, No Child Left Behind, etc., not a single one was happy with the changes in the educational landscape.
Yes, unions are powerful, but not powerful enough to create that kind of unanimity. Rather, something important is being said here, it is coming from the mouths of teachers themselves, and I need to listen to them afresh.
That led me, in turn, to dig deeper into the pros and cons of Common Core. Guess what? As with just about every issue, there’s way more nuance and complexity than meets the eye. The two largest U.S. teachers’ unions supported Common Core at first. So did many teachers. Opposition to Common Core is not coming from one end of the political spectrum, but rather from across the spectrum (though each “side” has its own reasons).
To think all this started with a casual neighborly chat.
Here’s the point. In the field of dialogue, we talk a lot about process, and that’s good. Academics and practitioners have designed some terrifically effective approaches to facilitating dialogue in structured settings.
But, as I point out in my book, there’s inestimable value in fostering dialogue as a habit of the heart as well—something so fundamental to our deepest selves that, when presented with an opportunity like this Saturday chat, we instinctively respond with curiosity and compassion. Equipped with this habit of the heart, we are continually ready to see opportunities to listen, learn more, connect with others, and bridge divides.
And trust me, those opportunities are everywhere.
P.S. If you want to educate yourself on the Common Core debate, try these articles for starters: a Wall Street Journal op-ed generally in favor of Common Core, a piece from education historian Diane Ravitch on her opposition, and a USNews survey of who’s for, who’s against, and why.
I have to confess: I don’t like Walmart.
I don’t like the layout or the crowds. I don’t like the sub-subsistence wage they pay employees. I don’t like the havoc they wreak on local businesses and communities.
Clearly the entire business is an unmitigated blight on our society.
Clearly I’m as prone to simplistic bias as the next person.
That bias came to light when I woke up last week to a series of reports about Walmart on NPR’s Morning Edition. The segment on workers did highlight the pay issue I mentioned above. It also mentioned Walmart’s employee retirement plan and interviewed neighborhood supporters of the company. It quoted some people as observing that, at least in some communities, Walmart jobs are better than no jobs at all.
The day before, in a segment on community impact, the reporters noted that the Walmart effect is more complex than simply “Walmart comes in and destroys local business.”
Yes, they also raised the oft-repeated criticisms of the company. But overall, the picture presented is more nuanced than I would have thought.
I don’t know why I’m surprised. Time and again I run across input that forces me to re-examine—and usually revise—my opinions and biases. More often than not, these are opinions and biases I didn’t even know I had. The new input uncovers the dross in my inner life and empowers me to change or root it out.
(As a side note, this closely resembles a dynamic well known in the Christian tradition: with divine help, our sinful tendencies become apparent to us, and we strive to clear them out of our hearts in order to make more room for God.)
This attitude toward input is part of fostering dialogue as a habit of the heart. If we give input the opportunity to change our misperceptions, we’ll be more likely to approach the next bit of input anticipating the wisdom it may hold. We bring to it not the usual defensiveness, but a spirit of curiosity and inquiry.
This becomes all-important when that input comes to us face to face, via a living breathing person. Now we are not just welcoming another point of view; we are welcoming the human being behind it. When she says something with which we disagree, we’re more inclined to ask her to explain more, so we can explore the truth with her. And just like that, dialogue begins.
When was the last time you let some new input shape your old ideas? What was it like? Would you do it again, and why or why not?
A few days ago I said something stupid, possibly even offensive, and it got me thinking about a disturbing bandwagon that most of us, from time to time, jump on and ride.
On Tuesday I had the privilege of speaking about my book at the behest of the Friends of the Albany Public Library. From what I could tell, the “book talk” was well received. During the Q&A, someone raised an issue that I hear a lot: how can you look to the Christian faith for insights on dialogue when the history of Christendom is littered with war, oppression, complicity in genocide, etc.?
It’s a compelling question, and the moment I heard it, I wanted to express my solidarity with the questioner—that I too am horrified by many acts perpetrated in God’s name. What I said was something like “I make no apology for my fellow Christians and the things they’ve done.”
Somehow, in my head, the phrase I make no apology meant I will not even try to justify or rationalize—in other words, the acts were horrible and I admit it. Later, back at home, I searched some online dictionaries for the phrase and found that it’s used for saying you’re not sorry about something. Yikes.
It gets better. The talk was being recorded. It’s slated to play on public access TV all week.
In the grand scheme of things, this is probably no big deal. Even the event organizers said so (they hadn’t noticed). But now imagine that someone wants to ruin me. He could conceivably edit that little clip, send it to any media who care, and post it on Facebook. I would look like an idiot, or worse.
Is this starting to sound familiar?
We do this all the time with our celebrities, our elected officials, and others in the public eye. They get their words tangled, it comes out badly, people catch it on their smartphones, it goes viral, and the outrage begins.
In that outrage, for some reason, we make a critical error: we assume that the clip in front of us represents the entire picture of what happened, context included. That’s an error for at least two reasons:
- We have no idea if the person on camera honestly misspoke. Public speaking is a weird phenomenon: you’re focusing on what you’re saying, how you’re saying it, how the audience is reacting, how much time you have left, what you can cut from the speech to make up time… Try to juggle all those thoughts and not make a single verbal mistake.
- We have no idea what the person said before or after the offending clip. It may have changed the meaning substantially. We may not even know the setting for the quote, or the intended audience, or other key contextual details.
The problem here is not so much judgment as it is the rush to judgment. We owe it to ourselves, to the offending speaker, and to the spirit of dialogue to inquire carefully into the context before we decide what the quote says, if anything, about the person behind it.
We all screw up. Stupid things fall out of our mouths. Sometimes they do in fact reveal our venality or sin or prejudice, and it’s important to fess up to it. Sometimes “I was misquoted” is a cheap excuse. But sometimes it’s true. Let’s get in the habit of checking it out before rushing to judgment.