Archive for the ‘Dialogue and Language’ Category
Political lies used to imply that there was a truth…. Evidence, consistency and scholarship had political power. Today a growing number of politicians and pundits simply no longer care. They are content with what Stephen Colbert, an American comedian, calls “truthiness”: ideas which “feel right” or “should be true.”
—“The Post-Truth World: Yes, I’d Lie to You,” The Economist, September 10, 2016, p. 18 (emphasis mine)
My social medium of choice, Facebook, has been a disturbing place of late—even more than usual. A particular meme formula is appearing more frequently as we get closer to the U.S. presidential election. It goes like this:
- Photo of something outrageous (especially if it casts the candidate you don’t like in a negative light)
- Headline so outlandish it’s guaranteed to get attention
- Name of the source
People share these things in a blink. They’re so juicy that you can barely resist clicking through. If you stop to read the source line, though, you might detect a fly in the ointment: it usually reads something like (and these examples are made up) downwithfilthycapitalists.org or freedomfrommuslims.edu. Many of these sources excel in making up news, distorting it to their own ends, or at least disseminating stories without any regard for their truth value.
In the post-truth culture described by The Economist, where we don’t care about the facts, that makes perfect sense. But it presents a massive problem: there is no way—no way whatever—that we can run a society on that basis.
So we need to care like citizens and think like journalists.
The caring-like-citizens part is fairly straightforward. We realize that without a consensus on the facts behind an issue—or at least the orientation to care about the facts—we cannot begin to dialogue about the wicked societal problems that are far too big for one person, or one interest group, to overcome. Caring about an issue and the truth associated with it, then, becomes an act of good citizenship.
Now, thinking like journalists. Good journalists take nothing for granted. They check and double-check their sources—on everything. As the old saw goes, “If your mother says she loves you, verify it.”
Time was when good journalists, and the reputable media that employed them, were plentiful enough to ferret out truth from nonsense for us in many cases. That’s not as true anymore, thanks to budget cuts, failing newspapers, etc. So now we have to be our own journalists, or at least our own fact checkers.
How? There are at least three ways we can do it, and I’ll describe them in the next post. For now I’ll leave you with one thought: when I say “we need to care like citizens and think like journalists,” I mean everyone. Me. You. Your neighbor down the street. We need all hands on deck to work through our thorniest problems, which means that collectively we must put the post-truth trend behind us. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
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?
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.
It was day four of a five-day retreat. We’d just finished another soul-baring breakout session, three of us practicing new interpersonal skills and getting critique from one of the retreat facilitators. The exercise would have been grueling on any day; on this particular day it came after hours of deep, intense lecture on many things dark and psychological.
I could say we were exhausted, but exhausted doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Right after the breakout, the facilitator left. The three of us retreatants were left on our own. And we started to compare notes: our opinions of x facilitator’s belief system, whether y facilitator had completely misunderstood us, the off-the-record thoughts each of us was harboring and are y’all thinking the same thing?
In other words, gossip.
OK, I am using a very specific (and somewhat edited) definition of the word, from the OED: “Casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people.” Yes, gossip often carries overtones of rumor mongering, malice, and other nasty stuff. I’m referring more to what church people sometimes call parking-lot conversation: the casual chat, often held in parking lots after a meeting, where folks linger to let their hair down and say what they think. Sometimes the conversation just involves ideas, but because ideas come from other people, we sometimes end up talking about other people too.
This kind of chat gets a bad rap. We refer to it darkly as “talking behind each other’s backs.” The Bible confronts “whispering” and “tale bearing” with a hearty dose of condemnation.
So, in true contrarian fashion, allow me to raise a few good points about gossip, at least as I’m defining it.
For one thing, this brand of gossip is an effective reality check. It can be useful when an event stirs something within us that resists what’s been said, and we can’t tell whether or not our opinion is abnormal. “Did you hear that? Did it seem weird to you? I couldn’t help hearing it and thinking _________; what about you?” This is especially important for adult children of alcoholics and others who struggle mightily to figure out what normal is.
Similarly, “parking-lot conversation” can help us ferret out the essential from the trivial. During contentious meetings, I’ve found myself speaking angrily about an issue without taking the time to determine whether this is the battle I want to pick. The “meeting after the meeting” provides a calmer place to re-examine what happened, whether I should have just let it go—or, conversely, whether it’s important enough to keep pursuing it.
Informal conversations also allow us to reflect openly on people who may be toxic. Such folks typically excel at manipulation, the use of language to conceal or mislead, crafty tactics to divide and conquer, etc. It can be nearly impossible to figure out their game—and then defuse it—without comparing notes with others.
Certainly we need to take great care with this kind of conversation. We must watch our own souls for signs of the aforementioned malice or the desire to spread rumors. Still, gossip (defined this way) does appear to have its good points. I’m sure there are others. Can you name a few?
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.
This past weekend I found myself in Drummondville, Quebec, about an hour east of Montreal, waiting to place my breakfast order at a Tim Horton’s. As you might expect, the menu and the chatter of the counter staff were entirely in French.
French is not my first language.
Thanks to C. Douglas Fenner and several other great teachers, I speak French tolerably well. I understand spoken French less well. And when the speakers are Québécois—whose French is different from what I learned in high school, and who speak much faster—I might catch one word out of every 10.
That, of course, makes ordering breakfast an adventure.
I didn’t know how to say oatmeal, but a photo of a steaming bowl shone brightly from the overhead menu, so I plucked the right word from there. My counter person asked me a question, which I initially fumbled, then understood as “for here or to go?” (I heard the words pour ici—“for here”—and that was enough.) So far, so good. I ordered my coffee just fine—large, cream, two sugars—and paid and waited.
Suddenly another employee stepped up and asked me a rapid-fire question. I didn’t catch a single word. So I resorted to my default answer: oui.
It wasn’t completely ignorant. As she spoke, I thought about where we were in the transaction and what she might possibly be asking. It had to be about toppings for the oatmeal. Fortunately, I like just about any and every topping on my oatmeal, so oui was pretty low risk.
And high reward: the oatmeal was delicious.
Why am I telling this story? Because it started me thinking about the value of paying attention to the here and now—more than that, to everything in the here and now (in a word, mindfulness). When you’re awake to everything, you pick up cues that might otherwise elude you. Suddenly two words in a 10-word sentence are enough. A sharp eye on the process, especially a process as familiar as ordering at a coffee shop, enables a response that just might make sense.
We do this all the time in one-on-one interactions: we read facial expressions, gestures, tones of voice, etc., and our understanding is much better than if we just heard the words. While this sort of attention is helpful one on one, it can make the difference between success and disaster in group interactions.
I’ll tell you a story or two about groups next time. For now: have you had an experience like my Tim Horton’s saga? How did you navigate it? What did it teach you?
Maybe it’s that I’m reading Alice Walker’s incredible The Color Purple just as the commentary around Trayvon Martin has taken center stage again. Whatever the reason, the loud, angry cacophony about race in America has cut me to the heart—and rattled my cage.
Like many white people, I first grew aware of this cacophony because of the O. J. Simpson verdict, with the stark difference in interpretation of the evidence along racial lines. Since then I’ve read some, listened to wisdom from some great thinkers (like Judith Katz, a pioneer of the idea of white awareness), and have some grasp of what I should do and how I should think around this issue.
The shoulds can be useful guides. Ultimately, though, whatever I do and think has to come from me—from my deepest self. I am just starting to glimpse what that is. And one part of it may be helpful to white Americans like me who are struggling to understand, on a heart and gut level, the dimensions of the conversation on race.
So, white Americans, here’s an idea to chew on:
Each of us grows up with a story. It tells us who we are, who our family is, and particularly what our society is and how it works. For those of us with things in common, our stories hold some things in common—especially about society.
This is true of us as white people. We’ve learned that the policeman is our friend. We know that there are no limits to how far you can go or what you can do. We’ve heard that we live in a post-racial society.
That is our story.
Over the years, we have heard it a lot. So often, in fact, that for us it becomes a given. It is no longer a story about reality; we think it is reality—“the way things are.”
Then we get the O. J. trial. And Trayvon Martin. And suddenly we see that at least one other group of people—African Americans—has a different story. On many points, their story contradicts our story.
All this is indisputable.
The question is what we do with it. And for people of dialogue, the answer is surprisingly clear.
As people of dialogue, we know that each of us is exactly one person among billions, with one person’s perspective among billions. Our knowledge is fantastically limited, our ability to be certain even more so. Those simple facts drive me into dialogue with you—because if I know so little, I want to hear what you know, so together we may get closer: to the truth of the situation, to a way forward, to mutual understanding.
In this case, as white people of dialogue, what we do next is listen. Long, intently, without interrupting.
This is particularly important in the U.S., where the dominant story—the white story—so often drowns out the other stories. Where for large swaths of our history as a nation, those other stories were seen as nearly sacrilegious, and their storytellers threats.
How do we start to listen? As my friend Paige Baker has pointed out to me, volumes have been written about these other stories. It behooves me to read them. I need giant portions of Alice Walker and Maya Angelou and others like them.
I think dialogue as a habit of the heart can play an important role here. As white Americans, we have heard our story for many years. It will take years for us to absorb the other stories. That calls for an inner orientation toward listening that enables a continual readiness. Whenever the conversation comes up—with a friend, in the media, wherever—we are ready to listen because our whole selves are tuned that way.
So. Can we listen for a while? A long while? Do you see the value?
Last month I wrote about thinking from within someone else’s perspective. This, from my view, is the next step beyond deep, open-hearted listening in dialogue: it shows the highest respect for others by actively engaging their values and beliefs. In other words, we get inside their heads to understand and empathize.
To get to this place, I have used what I’m calling a “glimpse of empathy.” Let’s say my dialogue partner is trying to communicate the emotional impact of an issue that’s important to her. I don’t feel that way about that issue. But I have felt that way—in another context, perhaps at another level of intensity—somewhere else. Visiting that emotional space within me gives me a tiny glimpse of what she must be feeling. That glimpse enables me to empathize.
An example may help. Recently I jumped into an extraordinary online conversation that touched on living as a member of a historically oppressed group, particularly women and people of color. As a white man, I can listen deeply and open-heartedly to the experience of people in these groups, but it is impossible for me to fully grasp, to the depths of my soul, what that experience must be like.
Not long after, someone asked me about the experience of living as a more or less moderate-progressive Episcopalian in a ruggedly conservative diocese. It is difficult and sometimes painful. I have attended diocesan conventions knowing that none of the resolutions dear to my heart would be passed. I have been told—respectfully—that I cannot lead a workshop because I am not conservative. My chances of holding a diocesan office and contributing on that level are zero. While I’ve built some satisfying relationships at convention, I feel a profound sense of otherness, of not belonging.
I wondered whether this—in some very small, very limited way—was what oppression felt like. That was my glimpse of empathy.
Now allow me to admit something. I’m not sure about this glimpse-of-empathy business. And I’d like to hear your thoughts.
On the one hand, glimpses of empathy should be handled with extraordinary care. I should never assume that, just because I’ve felt excluded at a diocesan convention, I “know what it’s like to be oppressed” as a woman or a person of color. I will never “know what it’s like”—the fear and pervasiveness and powerlessness of oppression.
Moreover, I wouldn’t want to communicate anything approaching “I know what it’s like” to my dialogue partner. She would likely take it as arrogance, and rightly so. The dialogue would suffer and perhaps break down.
On the other hand, glimpses of empathy have the potential to be extraordinarily powerful in advancing both dialogue and solidarity. If we can find some emotional/experiential foothold within ourselves to begin to identify with others—however small that foothold is—we can appreciate their experience and their mindsets from within ourselves. In doing so, we build a bond that could be very difficult to break. Our perspective on the world opens wider. Every time that happens, the capacity for opening still wider, for empathizing with still more people, grows.
Perhaps we can even put this glimpse of empathy before our dialogue partner for verification. It would require humility: not “I know what it’s like” but rather “I’ve had this experience. It’s not even close to what you’ve experienced, but I wonder if it can help me start empathizing with what you’re saying. What do you think?”
We can never “know what it’s like.” We can begin to get a tiny glimpse of what it’s like. I think this glimpse of empathy can help us do so. What do you think?
I am a leader in my worship community who deals with many volunteers. Occasionally I run into someone who says, “If we go in this direction, I’ll have no choice but to leave.” How can I deal with this situation? Is there a dialogic way to do so?
A while back, I posted this question, invited you to respond, and told you I’d share how I answered it. (My apologies to anyone who was waiting eagerly. No excuses; life simply got in the way.)
I am here now to tell you that I answered it wrong.
For some reason, the question hit an emotional trigger with me. I could feel myself seethe a bit as I called the statement like this “emotional blackmail” and suggested that the questioner just let the person leave. Yikes. Down, boy.
I wasn’t entirely wrong. Some people do use this tactic as emotional blackmail. But many others come to “I’m leaving” from an entirely different place.
Often that place involves deeply held convictions. People on both sides of the debate over same-sex marriage may find themselves in worship communities that do not support them. A business leader may see her organization headed in one direction and her heart (or her calling) in another. A woman who is committed to raising children suddenly discovers that her life partner has decided he doesn’t want them. People in situations like these, I think, do well by themselves and others by being clear and upfront: “If we go in this direction, I’ll have no choice but to leave.”
If you’re on the receiving end of that statement, however, what do you do?
The better angels of my nature suggest the use of “gentle questions”: inquiries that empower the person to tell her story, explain the nuances behind her convictions, and explore next steps—all asked with honor and reverence for her integrity. These questions should carry the sense of “Wow. That’s fascinating. Tell me how you got there”: questions like what in your life brought you to that idea? What has made it so fundamental to you? How have you been able to live with the tension until now?
The ideal situation—and this is the hardest part—is to ask the questions with the other’s welfare uppermost in one’s mind and heart. In some cases, like the couple with fundamental differences about children, this may be well nigh impossible. In others, though, there’s a temptation to hold on to that person for personal or organizational reasons: the church needs your leadership and spiritual depth, the organization can’t go forward without you.
This, I think, is part of the value of dialogue as a habit of the heart: the inner transformation that we do in the “work of the soul” allows us to relax our grip on these people and their contributions.
It’s possible that the conversation may turn up a third path—a way in which the person can maintain her integrity and yet continue to live into the situation. Wonderful. The mistake, however, is to try steering the conversation that way.
Does all this make sense to you? How would you approach it differently? Please let me know, either here or on Facebook. I’d love to hear from you.
Steroid users should never be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Yes, I realize my position has its problems. What qualifies someone as a steroid user? Is one use, even for medical reasons, enough to disqualify the player? How about three years of use in a 20-year career? Should we only keep confirmed users out of the Hall? Strongly suspected users? And how strongly is strongly? Suspected by whom?
Legitimate questions all. Ultimately, however, they won’t change my basic conviction. Sure, we can talk about those borderline cases, like Alex Rodriguez. But in general, keep them out.
This stance may qualify me as a baseball fundamentalist.
Fundamentalists of all types, but particularly religious fundamentalists, take a lot of flak for the perceived rigidity of their beliefs. Many people—some based on first-hand experience, others on hearsay or stereotype—think of fundamentalists as overbearing, self-righteous, unwilling to listen or consider other opinions. True, when fundamentalists act in this way, they erect barriers between themselves and others. But the stereotypes of fundamentalists can erect those same barriers.
Maybe we could start removing the barriers if we realized that most of us—maybe all of us—are fundamentalists in one way or another.
Think about it. Do you hold any belief about which you are unwilling to hear other opinions, let alone compromise? Are there values or viewpoints where you simply will give no quarter? I didn’t think I had an inner fundamentalist—until I started thinking about Barry Bonds. Surprise, surprise.
So if I have an inner fundamentalist, I suddenly share some common ground with those other fundamentalists. I can get a glimpse into the mindsets and emotions that go into holding a belief or value or interest tightly with both hands. If I can stay mindful of that insight, perhaps I see fundamentalists in a different light—with a bit more empathy—when I next run into them. Maybe that opens the door a crack to hearing them out.
This is not about rushing to agreement with fundamentalists, or with anyone who disagrees with us. It is simply about finding a way into dialogue with a group of people who, in the minds of many, are impossible to engage in dialogue. To the extent that any given fundamentalist (or, again, any other person) refuses attempts to reach across divides, dialogue will not occur. But by considering our common ground, we can at least remove the barriers from our side.
So…in what areas are you a fundamentalist? How do you feel when these areas appear to be under attack? Can you imagine how others might feel the same about their fundamentalist areas? Feel free to share your thoughts here.