Archive for the ‘Dialogue and Current Events’ Category

Can the Truth Set Us Free in the Trump Era?

This is the story of a weird Bible interpretation and the unexpected wisdom it holds for us today.

Recently I came across the gospel account of Jesus and a Jewish sect called the Sadducees. As the story goes, some of these Sadducees came to Jesus with a theological question: if a woman is married seven times, who exactly is her husband when the resurrection happens?

The way I read it, there’s a lot of chutzpah behind the question. Sadducees didn’t believe in a resurrection, so this group was just trying to bait Jesus. I wouldn’t have blamed him for rolling his eyes and walking away.

Instead, he gave them a straight answer—starting with the actual question (“in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage”) and then countering their core belief. He defended the idea of the resurrection with an ingenious interpretation of Hebrew scripture.

But why did he bother? Why no eyeroll instead? I think the answer is in the last verse of this passage: “When the crowd heard [his answer], they were astonished at his teaching.”

The crowd. There were other people there. If Jesus doesn’t respond to the Sadducees, maybe the crowd members walk away with the idea that the Sadducees’ question is legit, that they’ve got the answer right. Maybe Jesus realizes he must put the truth out there, so the crowd can distinguish truth from cynicism.

That brings us to the Trump era.

I’ve written elsewhere about my partial timeout from conversation and dialogue. The tenor of U.S. public life for the past two years—the coarseness, the viciousness, the bone-deep cynicism about every institution—left me wondering whether I needed a new way to be present to the world. From what I’ve heard and read, I’m not alone on this, not even close.

Many months into my timeout, I’m starting to think this “new way to be present” has something to do with truth: speaking it, ferreting it out, committing ourselves to the idea anew.

(I’m definitely not alone on this. For a clear, eloquent, unblinking look at what’s been called the “post-truth era,” check out this article.)

I still believe dialogue is terribly important. But in some types of dialogue—especially those where facts play an important role, like political or scientific controversies—it’s difficult to converse meaningfully when you can’t even agree on the facts or, worse, when one person asserts facts and the other instantly cries “fake news.” Partners in these dialogues must agree to seek truth and accuracy, then come as close to finding them as they can.

A few to-dos can help us get closer to truth. We would do well, for example, to be more rigorous in checking the truth value of news stories, to “balance our media diet” with respected sources across the spectrum, to take time for reflection before we knee-jerk-react to the latest story. (I talk about some of this in my book about dialogue.) We can be more willing to acknowledge the shortcomings of our own side—and give our adversaries grace to do the same.

We can also find ways to open our hearts. A wide-open heart relaxes our iron grip—our attachment, in Buddhist terms—to things other than the Ultimate (God, One, Reality, Emptiness, whatever term you use). That, in turn, frees us not only to pursue truth, but also to love everyone regardless of what they believe.

This seems important. If I’m reading that gospel lesson correctly, there are times when letting cynicism go unchallenged could be corrosive to our social fabric. Now feels like one of those times. Jesus’ example may be relevant in ways I’d ever imagined.

Change Making for Introverts, or, Is There Only One Way to Address Injustice?

I have this friend who’s, well, colorful. He’s a simple fellow, tells you exactly what he thinks, makes me laugh like hell, cusses like an unrepentant sailor, and is as openhearted and generous to his friends as anyone I know.

He’s also a racist.

His attitudes toward people of color have always felt like a thorn in my finger: sharp, painful, dipped in poison. I know I should say something direct, but confrontation is my weakest suit. Instead (in my better moments at least) I deflect: my responses don’t confront him, but they do let him know I stand somewhere different. When he says, “This neighborhood’s changed since the blacks moved in,” I say something like “Oh, that’s cool” or “So it’s more interesting now.”

In today’s zeitgeist, such an approach would brand me as complicit in racism. Perhaps that’s true. But there might be another way to think about it.

All of this came to mind when a TED Talk appeared in my inbox yesterday. The speaker is Sarah Corbett, an activist and introvert, who explains that traditional activism is typically loud, quick to react, assertive, confrontational—an introvert’s version of hell, in other words. She goes on to describe ways in which introverts can engage in activism.

At about the 7:10 mark of the video, she uses the term intimate activism to describe a style that’s nonconfrontational, that involves lots of listening and bridge building, that speaks directly when needed. It allows introverts to serve as (in Corbett’s words) “critical friends, not aggressive enemies.”

It’s like she designed it just for me.

OK, so I’m still not good at the “critical” part of “critical friends.” But I hear Corbett validating an insight that keeps nagging at me: name a social problem of our time, and there’s more than one way to contribute to the solution.

In fact, there may be as many ways to contribute as there are people. When you contribute from your strengths—no matter how inadequate they may seem to you and others—you may make an impact that can’t be made in any other way.

I’ve been wondering about this ever since riding in a car with my friend this past fall. For the hundredth time, he made a disparaging comment about people of color, and for the hundredth time I deflected. And he said to me, quietly, “Are you OK with them?”

I didn’t say much: something like “yes” or “absolutely.” But in his question I felt something shift, something important and deep within him. Maybe all my “lame” responses had, over the years, made a not-so-lame impact.

What I’m trying to say is that every form of activism has value. All those folks who call people out and march in protest and speak loud and angrily in news reports—we need them to do what they do best. But it’s a mistake for me to try doing what they do best. Doing what I do best, on the other hand, might just make a difference.

What about you? How do you address big social issues like racism when they come up in your life?

Why I’ve Hit the Pause Button on Dialogue

Not so long ago, most of my writing was devoted to dialogue. Dialogue and Donald Trump. Dialogue and the debate over guns. Dialogue and why my website isn’t called Dialogue Venture anymore. A whole book about dialogue.

All of which makes my current approach to dialogue so curious—and maybe fruitful. For the past year or so, I’ve hit the pause button on dialogue and everything related to it.

This pause has gone through many iterations. Right now it’s in something like a steady state. I’m avoiding political conversations with friends and relatives. I have myself on social media brownout, following my beloved hobbies but little else. I’ve found an inner emotional “set point” for news intake: I keep abreast of current events up to that point and no further.

The reasons for the pause may sound familiar. The shock following the U.S. presidential election last fall. Repeated attempts—and mostly failures—to find dialogue partners on the other side of any issue. The viciousness in too many social media messages. The damage to my mental health that all of this wreaks.

Strangely, several things dialogic are occurring even within the pause.

For one thing, I am trying to listen selectively—for depth and the ring of truth and the “story behind the story.” So my attention is drawn to God, to my deepest self, to the few media I trust to articulate the world to me. I am shunning noise, like the sensationalism and repetition that characterize much of today’s news (and social) media. I find myself reading books more than tweets. I am writing less and reflecting more.

The medium of all this, where it takes place, is solitude and silence: large stretches of time and space to let the news turn over in my soul. This is a distinctly contemplative approach to dialogue—the way nuns and monks, sages, Zen masters, and their counterparts might practice it. Solitude, silence, prayer, meditation, listening, and then acting in the world are what we do.

Must everyone do it this way? Not at all. After the election last November, a great deal was said and written about the need to stay engaged: to redouble our outreach to the “other side,” to confront the president’s excesses at every turn, to oppose injustice. We need people to do that. Conditions could get very bad very fast without that kind of presence in the public square.

But such activity is not the only response. The pause is no less important. It fosters the depth and perspective that can transform activity into something more soulful. It raises larger, deeper questions than we can get to otherwise. It serves as a corrective against shortsighted or impulsive reactions that inflame and do little else.

We all bring different gifts and character traits to whatever issue comes before us. Why would we assume that only one set of those can generate the “proper” response?

So my colleagues in dialogue may engage and mobilize. I pause—perhaps for weeks, perhaps for years. I cannot imagine I’m the only one. We need both. More than that, we need every offering of every individual gift to see our species through such dark and difficult times.

What Can Our Enemies Teach Us?

Please note: This is a delicate topic. If you’ve suffered major trauma at the hands of another person, feel free to skip the article, or at least read with care.

 

I don’t like using the word loathe. I don’t want to admit I can loathe. But three people in my past inspire something like loathing in my deepest self. They all—unintentionally, I believe—caused me a great deal of hurt.

There’s a hitch, though: every one of them contributed to who I am today, and what I can offer the world.

Two of them are brilliant thinkers, and their insights are now part of my foundation. The third was the first person to suggest I become a writer. Writing has become like oxygen to me, so I owe her a lot.

Can I value these people for what they have given to me, even though I’d cross the street to avoid them?

*  *  *

Fast-forward to today. Circumstances have forced me to regularly see, and do things with, someone whose life appalls me. I have watched him shame people and shut down important conversations. For various reasons, I’m also stuck with him. Even weirder, when we must collaborate, we do rather well.

Can I work with and dislike this person at the same time, with integrity?

*  *  *

People like these, I suspect, come to all of us. Perhaps it’s been worse in the past year, with all the drama in our public life. Maybe your most faithful friend offered her full-throated support to Donald Trump, and he makes your skin crawl. Or your loving sister revealed a racist streak you never knew she had. Or you suddenly realized that your adversary on that hot-button issue has taught you a life lesson you cherish.

Right now, in the Western world at least, we’re not well-equipped for this. Our increasing polarization, our default to “us vs. them,” the sheer intensity of rage over the past year: all of it shoves us toward simple, black-and-white, up-and-down decisions on people. We can’t handle the tension, so we run toward the poles. You’re with me or against me. Friend or foe.

This kind of behavior is understandable. The tension is brutal, after all. But if we dismiss people outright, we may miss the gifts they hold for us.

Now for some people in some situations—particularly where abuse is involved—ending the relationship may be the only healthy choice. Self-care is essential to survival, and if our ability to function depends on shutting certain people out, then we owe it to ourselves to do so.

For the rest of us, may I suggest that we not try to resolve the tension. What happens if we hold it instead—if we simply let the pain and the contribution of such people live side by side in our hearts? What if we just let the ambiguity be?

Here is where I think a deep, daily connection with the One—whether God, Spirit, Buddha-nature, whoever or whatever you conceive the One to be—is invaluable. In two spiritual direction trainings I attended recently, the presenters emphasized the necessity of doing our inner work before we can fruitfully engage the storms of the world in this new, populist era. That’s what I’m trying to say here. Most of us, I believe, don’t have the fortitude to hold this tension alone, by sheer force of will. We need help. We need the strength to turn away from outrage and toward openheartedness. We at least need the sense that we are not alone.

And from there? By holding the tension, I think maybe we give love the chance to do its work. Delaying a final friend-or-foe decision opens space to what these people have contributed to our lives, or the areas in which we can appreciate them. It keeps a channel open between us and them: a possibility of open communication, perhaps even reconciliation, in the future.

And here’s the big thing: with every person who can hold this tension, we get one step closer to a society that can hold this tension—a society of people who approach their “loathed ones” with a somewhat more open heart. That one step is tiny, to be sure, but it’s not negligible. And oh, how our world could benefit from a little less polarization, a little less loathing.

The Media and Other Groups That May or May Not Exist

Spend 10 minutes discussing any hot-button issue, and you will inevitably hear something about the media.

Most of us take the term for granted, as though we all know exactly what it means. It’s like a proper name. When you say, “Joe’s got it all wrong,” we automatically picture Joe (assuming we know him). When you say, “The media’s got it all wrong,” we automatically picture “the media.”

With the media, however, 10 different people may picture 12 different things—entirely different things.

The media is what’s known as a collective noun: a single term that stands for a group of individuals. Collective nouns get used a lot in sensitive conversations these days, for better and worse. For instance, you might hear someone make a statement about the mainstream media. Or the gays. Or the blacks. Or women—as in the classic question “What do women want?”

The last three examples have received a lot of blowback in recent years, and deservedly so. They’re often said with a tinge of disparagement born of certain isms: racism, sexism, homophobia. Used in this way, these collective nouns seem to assume that all gay people think alike, or all women want the same thing.

That’s obviously bollocks. Most of us (I hope) have learned this.

So why haven’t we learned it with the media?

When we refer to the media, do we mean The Economist, with its unapologetic free-market bias and incisive reporting of underreported stories around the world? Do we mean The Atlantic, whose essays always seem to highlight the one perspective that never would have occurred to anyone? Are we referring to David Brooks and his thoughtful conservative point of view? Or Maureen Dowd and her irreverent quasi-gossipy sometimes-liberal views?

The term mainstream media is no better. Does FOX News qualify? CBS? CNN? What about The PBS NewsHour, with its balanced in-depth reporting? How about Al Jazeera?

You might think I’m saying we should stop using collective nouns altogether. I might like to, but I can’t. They do have their uses, in large part because while we are unique individuals, we really do belong to groups with similar characteristics that often (but not always) shape who we are. So it’s difficult to have a full discussion of mass shootings without considering that nearly all the perpetrators are men, or to dialogue about terrorist attacks without considering that many attackers (but not all) have subscribed to violent and dubious interpretations of Islam.

Same with the media. They do have things in common. There is a bent toward the unusual or sensational: hence the old journalistic maxim “if it bleeds, it leads.” Broadcast news, in particular, works within severe time constraints (a half-hour to cover the world), so the reports may be simplistic. All journalists are biased because all journalists are human, and all humans have biases.

Bottom line, I think it’s essential for us to listen carefully for these collective nouns—and to the people who use them, including ourselves. Ask yourself what they mean by that term in that conversation. If we do that, we can take steps to question stereotypes, drill down into simplistic images, and get closer to a clear picture of reality, a rather important basis for any dialogue.

Things Change Slowly Because They’re Bigger Than We Think

It takes a long time to turn a big ship.

This maritime lesson keeps popping up in my life these days. It has profound echoes for much of my work: for dialogue, for spiritual direction, for our lifelong transformation from people of self-interest to people of God.

It also sheds light on world affairs, as today’s readings for Morning Prayer indicated.

The lectionary—the fixed schedule of psalms and Bible passages to be read during the daily cycle of prayer in churches and monasteries—brought me to Psalm 83, a difficult psalm for us 21st-century folks. The psalmist asks God to wreak havoc on Israel’s foes, and a picture emerges: that of Israel, a beleaguered nation, all alone in the world, surrounded by enemies that wish to obliterate it.

Sound familiar? Listen to the commentary from Israel and its friends in 2017, and you get the same picture.

The point of this post is not to assess the accuracy of this picture, or tout one side or the other, or analyze the endless complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Other people are far more qualified to do that. What strikes me today, instead, is simply this: the way that Israel perceives itself in 2017 is old.  Very old. More than two millennia old.

Maybe that’s one huge reason why Israel and the Arab world can’t “just settle their differences”—why they just can’t sit around a table and dialogue through the issues and come to a tidy resolution. This has been going on for century after century. It’s a big ship. Maybe 50 years is nowhere near enough to turn it.

Our individual lives reflect this same dynamic. In my first meeting with a new client, I’ll ask what brings them to spiritual direction, and they’ll provide some sort of “presenting issue.” At this point, I assume we’ll work through the issue for a few months, maybe even a year, get it squared away, and then go deeper into this person’s spiritual life.

Wrong. As it turns out, the presenting issue is not some tidy, compartmentalized quandary. Rather, it’s rooted deeply in the entire infrastructure of that person’s soul. We might spend the rest of our professional relationship coming back to it. It’s a big ship.

What do we do with the big ships, in our lives and in our world? The obvious response is patience: as a monk in my monastery puts it, we must learn to “make haste slowly.” That’s especially relevant in our go-go culture, where intense speed and 24/7 availability and overcrammed schedules are touted as virtues.

But there’s a hitch. Whenever things move slowly—particularly when I have some responsibility for helping them move—it’s easy to wonder whether they’re moving at all. Am I really helping, or are my actions making no difference? Is there a way to speed things up that I’ve missed? Should I devote myself to some more productive pursuit, with more tangible results?

Have you grappled with this too: times when life’s difficulties don’t resolve as fast as you’d like? Times when nothing you do seems to move the needle? How do you manage in that reality?

 

P.S. Just in case you’re in the market for arcane knowledge, here’s a fun read about big ships and, especially, how to avoid getting killed by one.

 

Rx for Your Trump Hangover

Note: this piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post on January 31. It’s written primarily for my progressive friends, and the intent is not to bash Mr. Trump (though I do criticize him–in a measured way, I hope–where I think it’s accurate and essential to the argument). Rather, it’s become clear that many, many people are struggling to cope with their inner turmoil in the wake of the U.S. presidential election; after two months of my own struggling, I’ve found something like a way forward, so I’m sharing it in the hope that it’ll help. 

Ever since November 8, like so many other people, I’ve been wrestling with Trump hangover.

Perhaps you know the symptoms. Vague but persistent anxiety. Occasional nausea. An overwhelming sluggishness. The nagging sense that you should be “over this by now.”

Being a spiritual writer, I took all of these symptoms, as well as their underlying cause, into prayer and contemplation, weighing a lot of input from various sources. Finally, the beginnings of a treatment regimen are starting to take shape, and I thought I’d share in case it helps.

First, the obvious but easily forgotten fact: Trump hangover is widespread, and you’re not making a mountain out of a molehill. The evidence indicates that the transition to President Trump is a seismic shift in the way the president treats the presidency—a shift to less stable ground. If you’re anxious, it’s with good reason.

It doesn’t help that Mr. Trump is a master at keeping his drama in the headlines—daily and sometimes continually. Between our always-on news culture and our relentless social media stream, we can’t even begin to recover from the last headline when the next one comes.

If you’ve struggled to keep your head above water, it’s because you’re immersed in a tidal wave.

In my own inner work around Trump hangover, I’ve had to make some rigorous distinctions that, before, I could slide by without making. News vs. commentary. Substantial news vs. not really news. Policy developments vs. the white noise of our public square. All in the service of regaining my center, preserving my integrity, re-establishing my boundaries, so I can think and act from a place of deep stability.

What does this look like in practice? For me, it goes something like this:

  • Diagnosing the root cause. It’s important to see that, beyond the normal policy differences and Cabinet appointments that serve as fodder for disagreement, two peculiar traits underpin the Trump administration so far: an apparent absence of sustained thought, and a disregard for shared meaning. Words and phrases are used more for effect in the moment—and just as quickly forgotten—than to make policy arguments over time. We are asked to believe official pronouncements over what we apprehend with our eyes and ears. Compelling factual evidence is dismissed with simple denials. In a world where the way we learn things means nothing, we lose our footing. Which leads to the boundary-setting steps:
  • News intake strategy 1: distinguishing fact from commentary from blather. For a while now, I have found it useful to focus my attention only on what the president does, not on what he says, or what others say about him. I’m also ignoring most commentary, as it simply inflames my anger without contributing anything of substance. (Two exceptions for me: David Brooks and Kathleen Parker.) For right now, just the facts, ma’am.
  • News intake strategy 2: look-screen-decide. Whenever I see a Trump-related news item, I look at the headline, then screen it for whether it’s (a) actual fact vs. commentary vs. blather, and (b) actual news about something of substance, vs., well, the opposite. If the topic is substantive, I read the article; if not, I ignore it with the mantra “not news, don’t care.” This keeps me away from such tempests-in-teapots as the controversy over crowd size at the inauguration. (A positive side effect: this look-screen-decide technique also helps me blithely ignore 90% of social media political posts.)
  • Picking your spots. For years I have cared deeply about dialogue across divides, and I want to continue that work. Anyone with family and friends on the “other side” has an interest in doing the same. For me, nothing about that sort of dialogue has to change, except one thing: I’m no longer interested in talking about Mr. Trump specifically. You want to talk gun rights, immigration policy, deregulation of healthcare, I’m up for it. Defend Mr. Trump’s behavior to me, and my mental health requires that I draw the line.

What does this give me? A sense of power, of agency, of proper boundaries set. It feels as though I’ve regained ownership of my own feelings and actions. I get to be an engaged citizen, but a healthy engaged citizen.

If early days are any indication, the news is going to be a tough emotional slog for the next four years. But maybe this will allow me to get through with my deepest self intact. May it do the same for you.

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

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

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

Consider three of these underpinnings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

Is Dialogue Even Safe in the Trump Era?

As you may have gleaned from the last post, the state of the U.S. is troubling me on a deep level. It has, among other things, left me with no stomach for dialogue—a very strange position for the host of a website called The Dialogue Venture.

This made more sense to me in the immediate wake of the presidential election. A seismic shift like the election of Donald Trump takes some processing. But it’s now December and I still don’t want to talk.

I may, however, be starting to figure out why. And the reasons may bump into some of America’s deepest divides like a dentist’s drill on a raw nerve.

(Warning: some of what follows may induce eyerolling and the no shit, Sherlock response. I will completely understand. More than that, you may know from experience that I’ve got some important stuff in here totally wrong. If that’s true, please tell me.)

Here’s the thing: Reaching out to others in dialogue is a vulnerable act. Just saying “I want to dialogue with you” requires that we let our guard down. This is difficult enough when we do it from a position of strength—when the balance of power is at least equal (or tips to our side), when we feel safe and stable, when we perceive no threats on the horizon.

It’s nearly impossible when those strengths are missing.

As I wrote in my last post, no one who feels disrespected—or invalidated, or invisible, or in any way marginalized—wants to talk with their disrespecters. More broadly, no one wants to talk when they sense a clear and present danger in their environment, when opening up to dialogue carries a high risk of yet another, deeper wound. Only the saintly or heroic can even think of reaching out when vulnerable.

Before November 8—as a white, suburban, straight, genderfluid person—I perceived myself as in a position of relative strength or stability. Yes, people could mock my gender identity, but they were usually strangers and their voices were few. The election of Donald Trump, with his chronic denigration of others, has changed that. Suddenly being different—or even welcoming difference—leaves one open to disrespect and, sometimes, much worse.

It feels like a dark place. And yet there is one fascinating glimmer of light. I wonder if my sense of vulnerability is a teeny-tiny glimpse into the world of so many who have been disrespected every day, all day long, for decades, even centuries.

This feels like what I’ve read about the experience of African Americans, and why many of them view white people’s efforts to reach across divides with distrust and suspicion. This feels like what I’ve read as the reasons for separatist movements. This feels like what I know personally, from my experience as a genderfluid person, as frustration with having to explain, over and over again, who I am and why I am, when people who fit the cultural mold never have to explain. (To make things even more complicated, I know that sometimes it’s really important that I do explain myself, as I wrote here.)

Now, looping back to what I wrote last week:

No one who feels disrespected wants to dialogue with their disrespecters—and we all feel disrespected.

This apparently includes supporters of Mr. Trump. We have all heard the narrative: for a sizable chunk of the U.S. population—many of them middle or working class, living in rural areas, scraping to get by—the impact of global trends has been brutal. Their wages have stagnated, at best, for decades. No one in power, according to this view, is listening to them.

So if they get approached by an affluent professor from a big city, saying, “I want to dialogue with you,” why would they want to?

Now in fact some researchers—like Katherine Cramer from the University of Wisconsin—have made this work. That doesn’t obviate the fact that, for many of us right now, curling into our own worldviews and living there awhile sounds pretty good.

I don’t know what to do with all this. One imperative seems clear: if people don’t want to dialogue right now, we need to respect the living hell out of that. They have some very good reasons. Maybe the only thing we can do now is one-half the hard work of dialogue: shut up and listen.

Are These Dark Times for Dialogue?

 

Right after the U.S. presidential election, the dialogue field seemed to launch itself into activity. A November 14 post on the blog of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation proclaimed that “dialogue & deliberation is more critical than ever” and invited professionals to share their post-election activities. Based on the 34 responses in the Comments field—a huge number for most blogs these days—there’s a lot going on.

I’m sure some of this activity, even most of it, will prove fruitful in some way. Yet I cannot shake the gut feeling that we, as a field, are missing a very, very big point.

Specifically, I wonder if our prospects for authentic dialogue—at least on the national, global, policy, big-issue levels—have turned very dark indeed. I wonder whether the obstacles to further dialogue have become insurmountable, at least in the short term.

Here’s why I’m wondering this:

  1. It’s unclear to me that Trump supporters want to dialogue at all. Several disparate observations lead me to this.
    • Over several months, on my own social media feed, I put out several calls for Trump supporters to share the thinking behind their support. I received thoughtful, in-depth answers from precisely two people. Everyone else, even when approached directly, gave me evasions at best.
    • Separate from this effort, I’ve noticed that social media comments and posts from Trump supporters are nearly free of original content. (Before you think I’m jumping to the conclusion that Trump supporters are stupid, see point 2 below.)
    • In mainstream media, buckets of ink have been spilled reporting (and in some cases publishing research) on why Mr. Trump has attracted so much enthusiasm. There are many reasons why “the media” may have missed the whys and wherefores of this support. But could one of them be that many Trump supporters simply do not want to talk about it?
    • In NCDD (where I just finished two terms as a board member), we have long bemoaned the dearth of conservative voices among our membership. Some have pondered whether dialogue is a “liberal thing.” At the recent biannual conference, I don’t recall talking with anyone who supported Mr. Trump.
  2. No one who feels disrespected wants to dialogue with their disrespecters—and we all feel disrespected. I’ve noticed this within myself since November 8: amid all the talk of “reaching out to Trump supporters” to try understanding them, I want someone to reach out to me. Do Trump supporters feel the same way? Have they felt the same way for a long time? A corollary of this is “explanation fatigue”: people in marginalized groups often find themselves having to explain who they are and why they are, so putting the onus on them to explain themselves again in dialogue just adds to their sense of otherness and disrespect.
  3. The fissures are so much deeper, and more ancient, than we thought. I’ve been reading an in-depth history of the U.S. between 1788 and 1800, when factions and partisanship first became part of the political landscape. Some aspects of that history are so very familiar: a divide between city and country (link to brilliant and profane article on this topic here), between centralized government and small government advocates, between slave owners and abolitionists. I have no doubt that you could trace these divides much further back as well. Yes, the rise of Mr. Trump may be about immigration or economic opportunity in 2016—and these issues are important—but they do not begin to explain the divides of centuries. I don’t see our current attempts at dialogue even beginning to address this.
  4. In a post-truth society, we have nothing to dialogue with. The very nature of dialogue implies a search for truth of some kind: the truth of the other person’s experience, at least, if not some kind of transpersonal truth (e.g., gravity exists, slavery is universally wrong). We dialogue because there are truths we don’t know, either about the other or about the world. Mr. Trump’s campaign seems to have ushered in an era where one can say anything, claim anything, without regard for the accuracy or truth value of that statement. What then forms the content of our conversation? It can be anything, it can go anywhere, without regard for reality. This is not dialogue. It is not even conversation.

I dearly hope someone will read this and explain precisely why I’m wrong. I would love to think that dialogue efforts can proceed as they did before November 8—the same tools, the same techniques, the same spirit and attitude—just accelerated. But I don’t see it. What do you see?