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Archive for the ‘Dialogue and Current Events’ Category

When New Input Shapes Old Ideas: A Second Look at Walmart

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?

Stupid Remarks and the Rush to Judgment

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Does that mean every speaker should get a free pass? Not hardly. I listened to Mitt Romney’s 47% quote in full context, and it still sounded bad.

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.

Dialogue, ISIS, and the Reading of Evil

Is it enough to condemn evil without trying to understand it?

I’m not sure the answer is obvious. On the one hand, dwelling on the wretchedness of villainy (to paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi) can be corrosive to one’s inner life. It’s why we humans often tell one another to “focus on the positive,” or why St. Paul instructs his Philippian friends similarly:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

On the other hand, two things can go wrong if we condemn evil without understanding it. First, we could miss out on the fact that the “evil” isn’t evil at all, but simply another perspective that merits a hearing in dialogue or some other format. Second, in cases when the evil is evil, we could miss out on uncovering the best ways to defeat it.

Throughout his must-read article in this month’s Atlantic, contributing editor Graeme Wood puts the Islamic State phenomenon squarely in the second category. To correct this error, he puts forth a well-researched report on the specific beliefs that drive the caliphate.

If Wood’s analysis is correct, then actual dialogue with the jihadist leaders, even if remotely desirable, is impossible: their interpretation of Islam requires them to forswear the peace and bridge building that dialogue fosters. However, understanding the intellectual foundation of ISIS would greatly enrich our dialogue about ISIS—particularly the dialogue of Western leaders as they seek more intelligent, more effective strategies for bringing the rogue state down.

That is Wood’s thesis, and I agree. It doesn’t make reading about the Islamic State any less stressful or horrifying. A steady diet of such articles would mess with my mind, and probably yours too. Which leads us back to the question: does it make any sense for average citizens, with no power over strategy, to let this stuff into their minds? What do you think?

 

What I’ve Learned from Al Sharpton

My bullshit alarm went off last month. As usual, it forced me to rethink an opinion I’d always just assumed.

The big surprise was who set it off: Al Sharpton.

Here’s what happened. In the wake of the senseless deaths of two NYPD officers, one news item in particular caught my attention: Al Sharpton condemned the shootings.

I have never paid a great deal of attention to Sharpton. What little I had absorbed was overwhelmingly negative: he was an opportunist, a craven showman, an inciter of violence and hatred. So when a conservative friend or relative condemned the reverend, I would simply nod my head and point out that no, not all black people were like Al Sharpton, not all progressives were like Al Sharpton, he was an extreme example.

And when I heard that Sharpton condemned the murders of officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, it struck me as remarkable news. I figured someone in the public square would remark on it. But no: many conservative pundits continued their ongoing assault on Sharpton without missing a beat—without even acknowledging his statement.

That’s when my bullshit alarm went off. It posed this question: “Who exactly informed your opinion of Al Sharpton?”

After a bit of thought, I realized that my opinions came largely from in-laws and friends and media types. Specifically, conservative in-laws and friends and media types.

There’s nothing wrong with reflecting on sources like these. But I try hard not to get all my input from one viewpoint, so a bit of investigation was in order to restore the balance. I spent the better part of an afternoon reading about Sharpton: not what opinionators said about him, but what he said and did, going back at least to the 1990s. (For example: Sharpton’s eulogy at Michael Brown’s funeral and his account of his role in the Crown Heights unrest.)

To summarize: I could not find a single instance of Al Sharpton’s inciting violence. He is vocal and assertive about racial injustice, but he also takes elements of the African-American community to task (as in the Michael Brown eulogy). He has done some divisive and incendiary things, particularly in his early days (the Tawana Brawley affair comes immediately to mind). Perhaps he is opportunistic. Many of his calls for justice sound similar to what I recall hearing in the 1960s. I’m hardly the first person to notice all this: media outlets like Politico and Newsweek have chronicled Sharpton’s evolution.

As I read, a different image of Sharpton began to form in my mind: a particularly colorful mix of virtues and vices (like most of us), who appears to have evolved over time (like most of us). It is hardly a description of the devil incarnate.

So. What are the lessons here?

  1. People can and do change. We need to give them grace to do so. We owe it to them to see and honor their evolving selves and reshape our opinions of them accordingly. This approach, unfortunately, is in short supply, as anyone who’s attended a family reunion—and was treated like she was still 10—can tell you.
  2. There’s no end to our blind spots: instances in which we’ve semi-consciously glommed onto an opinion without even realizing we haven’t thought it through. Openness and humility can help here: humility keeps us attentive to how much we don’t know, while openness motivates us to hear—even more, to seek out—opinions that differ from our own, no matter how “settled” the issue might be for us.
  3. Assume good intent. This is particularly important for people of faith, since most if not all faith traditions require us to extend welcome and compassion to all. Does that mean we trust blindly? No. The gospel admonition to be “shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16) applies here. Skepticism can be healthy. Cynicism born of hostility, not so much.

Have you had to revise an opinion of someone you were absolutely certain about? How did that work for you? Feel free to tell your stories here.

What I’ve Learned from the Race/Policing Conversation

Over the past week or two, I’ve had a number of vigorous and civil conversations about police behavior, the use of force, and race in America. Emerging from those conversations are several points that, I think, are underrepresented right now in the public square. So here is what I’ve heard and learned and come to believe:

  1. We need to listen more and listen better. As I wrote in another article, “By listen, I don’t mean waiting impatiently for the other person to stop so I can have my say. I don’t mean listening through the filter of every belief I’ve ever held. I mean listening that is deep, openhearted, and fully attentive, that strives to experience the other person as she is, to accurately hear what she says.”  Read more here.
  2. We need more both/and. Can we deplore the destruction of property in Ferguson and inquire into the dynamics that gave rise to the underlying anger? Can we express concern about police use of excessive force and note the difficult line that officers walk in carrying out their duties? Can we uphold the value of individual responsibility and acknowledge the broader social trends that make assuming responsibility an uphill climb? If not, why not?
  3. We need space to explore without shame. The dynamics behind the incidents in Ferguson, Cleveland, and other places are new to many people (mostly white people). To fully understand any concept new to us, we humans inevitably fumble around, ask clumsy questions, make rookie mistakes, so that eventually we get it and can be effective in addressing it. Exploration is difficult, however, if we fear being labeled immediately as bad or unacceptable just for asking questions. This happened after 9/11 with the label un-American; I hear it happening now with the label racism. Are some people who ask clumsy questions racist? You bet. Do some hold truly good intent despite their klutziness? Indeed they do.
  4. I wonder if, just maybe, we can restart the conversation in a different place. I have heard commentators address their white readers along these lines: “You are blind to the fact that racism is systemic—baked into our system. Just by being white, you benefit from it. That makes you part of the problem.” Wherever this statement is on the accuracy scale, it usually puts white readers on the defensive, which derails the conversation and leaves us even more polarized. What if we addressed white readers this way: “Did you know that racism is systemic—actually baked into our system? Here’s what I mean….” By separating the system from the individual initially, we might be able to spark not defensiveness but curiosity—and, from curiosity, engagement.
  5. There is a world of hurt around race, and it hurts on all sides. I spent part of yesterday listening to the experience of a friend—a teacher who felt threatened by the aggressive behavior of two students and mentioned it to management. In response, because she is white and the students are black, her entire work group was sent to a seminar on unconscious racism. The shaming she felt is palpable in her storytelling. No, I am not saying that white pain is equal to black pain: not even close. What I am saying is that an acknowledgment of pain from everyone, to everyone, might be a first step in the long, arduous process of opening our hearts to one another.

What do you think—not about the incidents themselves, but about the conversation they have sparked in the public square? What does it tell us about the way we do dialogue?

A Look at Ferguson from the Depths of the Heart

Miki Kashtan writes more deeply about the human experience than just about anyone I know. When reading her blog, I have the sense that she has confronted a difficult issue, taken it into her deepest self (an act of courage if there ever was one), and written down the wisdom that emerges in that interface between her heart and the problem.

This week Miki, who is a renowned trainer and practitioner of Nonviolent Communication, has turned her attention to the unfolding story in Ferguson, Missouri—and thereby to deeper issues of race and policing. I cannot do better than to refer you to her article, “Responding to Violence with Love for All.” An excerpt to whet your appetite:

There are times, and this is one of them, where my ongoing choice to stay away from public events and electoral politics no longer stands up to my inner sense of moral integrity. This is a time where I am just too clear that it’s only my privilege that makes it even an option to choose. No, I don’t think that privilege is “bad,” nor do I aim to make it go away, nor believe it’s possible or even always desirable to do so. Rather, I want to consider my privilege as a resource, and to keep asking myself day in and day out how I mobilize my privilege and use it for the benefit of all….

This is the first and deepest commitment of any act of nonviolent resistance: I am willing to endure suffering; I will not dish out suffering to anyone else. As people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King knew, and others like them, known and unknown, our willingness to endure suffering is one of the very ways we can reach the hearts of those who are at present committed to cruelty. Nonviolence implies a willingness to trust that everyone is redeemable, even if we don’t know how to do it. When we expose our own vulnerability, we invite theirs.

Read the rest of Miki’s article here.

When Grey’s Anatomy Trumps the President

If you were channel surfing in the U.S. last Thursday evening, you might have caught Grey’s Anatomy on ABC or Bones on FOX. It’s what you’d expect on Thursday, right?

Not this past Thursday. Right around the time Bones and Booth were assessing their umpteenth skeletal murder victim, a major presidential announcement was taking place. On the Big Four networks—ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC—it was nowhere to be seen.

What gives?

Americans have grown up with the image of presidents plastered all over their TV screens for reasons both pivotal and not so pivotal. This one clearly falls into the pivotal category: congressional Republicans are predicting dire consequences, and the resulting rift may determine whether the U.S. government gets anything done in the next two years.

If there’s sound reasoning behind the decision not to air the President’s speech, you won’t hear it from the networks. All of them have declined comment. So let’s take a look at some possible explanations:

  1. It was already on Facebook. Media executives may have reasoned that the President’s Facebook video, released on Wednesday, made his Thursday night address redundant. But it’s unlikely: the Facebook video was only 59 seconds long and laid out no specifics.
  2. The networks were obfuscating for Obama or showing their preference for Republicans. Both are variants of the age-old claim of media bias. The fact that opposing pundits see opposing biases in the same event speaks volumes about this alternative. (I wrote about “media bias” more extensively in Chapter 3 of my book.)
  3. It’s sweeps monththe regular period during which networks estimate viewership and, as a result, set local ad rates for the coming months. The sweeps explanation strikes me as both entirely possible and disturbing: in this one instance, at least, the networks that have historically played a major role in delivering news opted for profit over public service.
  4. It’s complicated. This is a variation of points 1 and 2. As disturbing as I find the networks’ decision, it would have been far worse in, say, 1973, when the Big Three networks were the dominant purveyors of news. With the media landscape so fragmented, and Americans getting their news from a myriad of platforms, perhaps the networks decided the impact of their decisions would be relatively minor, shoving sweeps month to the fore.
  5. Univision will take care of it. I hesitate to even mention this one, because it is ugly. I don’t want to believe that any network executive might have said, or thought, “Hey, immigration is a Latino issue, so let ‘their’ network handle it.” To the extent that anyone thought this, it speaks to the persistent “us and them” orientation that entrenches our horrifying racial and ethnic divides.

I am not sure what the real explanation is. I do think, though, that network news still carries some obligation to the public trust—which means the networks owe us an explanation. How disappointing that they have chosen not to provide it.

Arnold Abbott and the Surprising Common Ground

Something in my Facebook feed stopped me cold.

Two somethings, actually. Both had to do with Arnold Abbott, the 90-year-old who, with two pastors, was arrested for feeding homeless people in Fort Lauderdale. Abbott et al. ran afoul of a new city ordinance that addresses what officials see as their homeless problem.

Two posts in my Facebook feed alerted me to the story. The first came from a progressive friend who bemoaned the heartlessness she saw in the city’s response. The second, hard on the heels of the first, came from a conservative friend who bemoaned the heartlessness she saw in the city’s response.

Can anyone say common ground?

Dialogue practitioners use the search for common ground as a powerful strategy for individual dialogues. Common ground humanizes us in the eyes of the other, and vice versa. If you and your convictions make my blood boil, and it comes to light that we feel the same way about something—it could be anything—this discovery can take the edge off my hostility. As my hostility abates, my capacity for listening grows.

So allow me a modest suggestion: let’s extend the search for common ground beyond instances of dialogue—and into every interaction in our lives.

Here’s what it might look like in miniature. One of my Facebook friends, a classmate from my alma mater, is both a rock-ribbed conservative and outspoken about it. Her words are often incendiary, and I have nearly unfriended her more than once. (I’m stunned that she hasn’t unfriended me.)

Every now and then, however, she’ll post something in praise of someone in military service, or in praise of God. I find myself agreeing, and I post a comment standing in solidarity with her. It’s common ground expressed.

Of course, this sort of thing may make no difference at all. But let’s say she and I have to resolve a problem. There’s a small chance that she’ll go into the dialogue thinking, “My goodness, Backman is a liberal jerk. But all in all, he’s not that bad. He loves Jesus, etc.” Her heart opens a little to hearing me. And vice versa: I remember the times we’ve connected, and my heart opens a little.

Maybe it makes the difference between failure and success.

What if we did this on a larger scale? What if we laid the ground for common ground with everyone we know on the “other side”? What are the chances we might become more openhearted in our deepest selves?

Have you ever tried this? What happened?

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.)

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?