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Archive for the ‘Dialogue and Language’ Category

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.

A Kinda Sorta Dialogue—en Français—at Tim Horton’s

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?

A Starting Point on Race for White People, Maybe

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?

A Glimpse of Empathy as a Promoter of Dialogue

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?

Hard Questions: “Do That and I’m Leaving” (the Sequel)

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.

Are We All Fundamentalists?

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.

Dialogue, Wisdom, and “Pondering How to Answer”

The mind of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil. —Proverbs 15:28

One marvelous aspect of lectio divina (the slow, reflective, contemplative reading of sacred texts) is that it allows “weak signals” to come to the surface—connections between words, ideas, and glimpses of wisdom we might otherwise miss. I’m currently wading through the Book of Proverbs in lectio-like fashion, and it brought me to the verse above.

What emerged for me was the contrast between pour and ponder.

Pour, at least in this sentence, has an urgency, a volume, even a violence to it. Think of the Gatorade that gets dumped on the head of a winning football coach: it comes out fast, it drenches everything in its wake, one pour and it’s over.

Now think of ponder. It is slow, quiet. When pondering, we turn over ideas leisurely and examine them thoughtfully. The movement is precisely opposite that of pour. The outcome of ponder emerges more slowly, but it may make a deeper impact.

As I reflected on this verse, I couldn’t help but go back to my earlier post on the aftermath of the Newtown shootings. Think of the pouring that took place soon after the tragedy: certainly an outpouring of shock and grief, but then a veritable tidal wave of opinion on every issue that could possibly relate.

Unlike the verse from Proverbs, I’m not thinking in terms of righteous or wicked here. In fact, not all the pouring was unhelpful; some of it, on the contrary, is required reading for the dialogue we must have in the wake of tragedies like this. (I’m thinking particularly of the haunting and honest “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.”) But I could not avoid the notion that all this pouring crowded out any space for pondering.

So it is with U.S. culture. We are “always on,” with advertising in every conceivable space, 24/7 news, instant access to the chatter of social media on demand. So many public places (doctor’s waiting rooms, bank branches) now come equipped with TVs, which are inevitably on. Everything seems to require background music.

In other words, we are an always-pour culture. We could use more pondering. Many of our personal and social ills can only come to resolution through pondering. Issues from climate change to the fiscal cliff to raising a difficult teenager cannot be solved when the pouring absorbs all our time and attention. They are simply too complex for that.

How can we make space for pondering? The only way I know is on an individual basis. Facebook and CNN aren’t going away just because we need a little space. That calls on us to listen carefully to our inner compass—to sense when we need to enter the fray and when we need to “come away and refresh ourselves.”

What do you think?

Singing the Lord’s Song to the “Other Side”

“How shall we sing the Lord’s song on alien soil?”  —Psalm 137:4

This haunting question—asked by the psalmist after the people of Israel had been swept into captivity, hundreds of miles from home—formed the theme of an address by the Bishop of Central New York, Gladstone (Skip) Adams, to the annual meeting of Albany Via Media (AVM) this past Saturday.

But it was a different question, asked immediately after the address, that revealed another potential way into dialogue across divides.

Alas, there are divides aplenty around these parts. AVM describes itself as “Episcopalians striving for a middle way of diversity and tolerance in the Episcopal Diocese of Albany.” I think of AVM as the loyal but progressive opposition in a conservative diocese. This, as you might expect, carries with it a great deal of tension and occasional rancor on every side.

On Saturday, Bishop Skip addressed the psalmist’s quote on several levels in a talk that was remarkable for its depth of thought and spirit. Then, during the Q&A, one priest noted that the “other (conservative) side” uses the exact same verse from the Psalms to mean something entirely different: how to be faithful to God in a rapidly secularizing society—of which many conservatives consider AVM to be a part.

That would seem to be a conversation stopper right there. How can we talk with one another when we can’t even agree on language?

But maybe it can be a conversation opener—if we use the language difference to probe gently for specific meanings.

Let’s say I fall into a dialogue with a conservative in the diocese, and she quotes that verse. What happens if I say something like “I love that verse, and I’m curious: when you refer to ‘alien soil,’ what are you thinking of? What does that phrase mean to you?”

I may not like what I hear in return, but the question opens an opportunity for me to understand my dialogue partner on a deeper level. Moreover, asking the question can prompt a dialogic question in return: “Why, what do you think of when you read ‘alien soil’?” This gives me the encouragement to share my thoughts in a nonthreatening way.

Several good things can happen from there. We might, for instance, discover how much common ground we share. We might also see how our respective viewpoints can inform and even change each other. For instance, I share my conservative colleagues’ concern about the secularizing of society, but I know very well that AVM members are not part of that problem. This kind of mutual questioning enables me to share that. Perhaps it helps my dialogue partner dispense with stereotypes about the “other side.”

And maybe, because we now see each other more clearly, the next conversation becomes easier, we go deeper, and our bond across divides grows stronger.

What about you? Have you noticed a word or phrase that means something different on the “other side”? What happens if you ask someone who uses it to explain its meaning?

A Hobbyist’s Model for Framing Dialogue

One of my hobbies revolves around friendly competition. Several times a year, we gather at shows in which judges evaluate our latest exhibits, place them in order of quality, and give out awards like Best in Show.  Inevitably, the exhibitors compare notes about judges too.

This kind of talk is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, good judges help exhibitors get better at their hobby, so it’s important to know whose judging to take with utmost seriousness and whose to, well, take with a grain of salt. On the other hand, as with any small group of human beings, the conversation often turns negative and personal—evaluation as bitch session. “I don’t like the way she handles the exhibits” can degenerate into “she’s a terrible judge” and, in some cases, “I don’t like her.”

In the last couple of days, a thread on this very topic has popped up on Facebook. It is remarkable for its civil, constructive tone—and for that I credit the person who started the topic and how she framed it:

While at the show [last weekend], there was a discussion on judges. Who we liked to show under and who we didn’t and WHY. I personally have judges I will never show under again, and others I will travel way far to be judged by. … So, what I am asking is for everyone to take a moment and share what draws and what repulses you from judges. I am not asking for names, just qualities you are looking for. Perhaps we can all learn from this. And judges, please weigh in with your comments as well!

Dialogue experts talk a lot about framing: how we use language to present a concept so that people can discuss it without feeling threatened.  I see several sterling examples of framing here:

  1. “I am not asking for names, just qualities.” Two words here signal that the conversation will not be about people. By itself, “I am not asking for names” could possibly have led to comments like “Not naming names here, but there’s one left-handed brown-haired judge from a certain part of New York who….” By asking for just qualities, our poster guided future comments into a discussion that any judge could use—without putting this or that judge on the spot.
  2. “Take a moment and share.” Contrast this with the headline I’ve seen in local newspaper columns that print call-in comments: Sound Off! The poster’s language indicates the tone desired in the comments to come—reflective, offered as one personal perspective among many, no authoritative pronouncements or pointless complaining.
  3. “Perhaps we can all learn from this.” The point is not to find fault, but to learn and thereby improve the hobby we all love. The word learn itself reflects a virtue I believe is essential for dialogue: humility—the ability, in this case, to recognize that we do not have all the answers.
  4. “Judges, please weigh in with your comments.”  The invitation extends to both sides of the table. Judges can learn from exhibitors here (and, as a recently licensed judge, I learned a ton) and vice versa.

Good framing often yields good results, and that was certainly the case here. The conversation was long and fruitful, and I’ll bet it results in a better hobby all the way round.

Where have you seen examples of good framing like the one above? Please share your experiences here.

Please Touch That Dial

I changed my morning routine recently, and it made me wonder if this is how polarization happens.

For years, my wife and I have set our alarm to one particular radio station. In between the usual traffic, weather, and sports, the hosts comment on the news of the day as well as daffy human interest stories and trends from around the world. These folks are funny and delightful and their banter makes for a light start to the day.

Over the past year or so, though, their comments have taken on a harder edge. The parent company airs a full slate of right-wing talk radio, so it came as no surprise that our morning hosts leaned conservative. In the run-up to the election, however, I heard their commentary as increasingly shrill and cutting. I would get out of bed with a knot in my stomach.

One day I couldn’t deal with it anymore. So I reset our alarm to National Public Radio.

Since then I’ve been happier with the morning wakeup, and doggone it if I’m not smarter when I get out of bed now. Still, two things unsettle me.

First, I have stopped listening to a station I disagree with on many points—in favor of a station I agree with on many points. This sort of “flight to allies” happens a lot in U.S. culture, and it serves to harden the divides between us. When we get our news and analysis from one source, with one worldview, it becomes more difficult to think outside that worldview. It is easy to assume that our perspective is simply “the way it is.” Moreover, we see people on the “other side” through the filter of the source’s perspective, which more often than not provides a distorted picture of them.

Second, what motivated me to change stations? Was it the worldview of the hosts, or the way they communicated it? I believe it was the latter. Unfortunately, many of their political arguments started and ended with the stock phrases of “their side”—as well as a certain tone of hostility and indignation with the “other side.” This, too, happens a lot in U.S. culture: think of the level of thought and discourse on partisan talk radio or, for that matter, through much of the presidential election.

Now consider this story as a microcosm. If you multiply it by the number of instances where we “turn the dial” away from those who disagree with us, then multiply by the 300 million people in the U.S., it’s easy to see how these small individual choices contribute to our polarized culture. If you multiply the stock phrases of these two radio hosts by the hours of airtime devoted to similar phrases on angry talk radio throughout the U.S., it’s easy to see that this limited public vocabulary makes our divides harder and harder to bridge.

Am I reading this right? Is this one way in which polarization happens? What do you think?