Archive for the ‘Dialogue and Language’ Category
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.
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?
“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?
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:
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
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?
In case you’re wondering…the manuscript for Why Can’t We Talk? Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (available this fall from SkyLight Paths) was due June 29. Between that, my full-time job, and a few dialogue-related events, I never succeeded in finding a moment to blog. My apologies! The schedule is now returning to something like normal, thanks be to God. So, to get back on track…
It was only one word in an entire column. It wasn’t even a particularly important word. Yet it captured, in a nutshell, why I see dialogue as a matter of the heart.
Not too long ago, The Times Union ran an engaging profile of Rev. James Martin—a Jesuit priest, writer, and thinker—by one of its bloggers, Fran Rossi Szpylczyn. Right in the middle of the piece, Szpylczyn mentioned Martin’s pleasant and easygoing personality.
“With an ever-present smile, he is clever, yet perpetually charitable,” Szpylczyn wrote. “This alone is remarkable in a media culture where verbal swords are wielded in the name of some kind of justice or truth. Not for this priest. He is dedicated to keeping the conversation frank, but civil, at all times.”
There it was. Keeping. Keeping the conversation civil. It implied an attempt to restrain something powerful and potentially havoc-wreaking, as in “keep your temper,” “keep your head about you,” or “keep the children from running amok.”
Why should we have to keep conversation civil?
Because civility is not our instinct. Our instinct, rather, is toward defensiveness, anger, and debate. When people take issue with us, we often turn up the volume, which makes us appear more authoritative or more intimidating. To paraphrase Szpylczyn, we wield verbal swords.
Why do we lead with this reaction? Perhaps we’ve learned it over millennia of conflict with different people, tribes, and nations. Quite likely, it reflects our nature as a species, as exemplified in the fight-or-flight response.
This is where spirituality can help. Many of the world’s faith traditions focus on inner transformation: a fundamental turning away from self-centered concerns and toward an ultimate concern—which many people, me included, identify as God. As we turn toward God with our whole being, God transforms our whole being from the inside out. Transforms it into what? Faith traditions are well aligned on that too: toward compassion, toward wisdom, toward peacemaking.
When we practice this type of spirituality long enough, intently enough, our first reaction begins to change. We find ourselves instinctively reacting, not with hostility and defensiveness, but with curiosity, open-mindedness, compassion. Reflecting the God who embraces all, we start to embrace all—not just as an external practice, but as an impulse of the heart.
As a result, we no longer have to keep the conversation civil—because we already are civil. It becomes our nature.
And how much change can that make in the other? As it is written, “A soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1). If enough of us practice this spirituality, we can turn away wrath more broadly, on a larger scale. Maybe, just maybe, we can change the tone of our cultural and national conversations.
Recently I spent two days in meetings with an emerging coalition of partners who want to facilitate change in the way communities function. Many of the participants expressed a deep passion for substantial, structural transformation; words like movement, culture change, and manifesto buzzed around the room. It got me thinking about the way this energy might be received by the communities themselves, by the media, and in the world at large.
That, in turn, got me thinking about cynicism.
Cynicism is, in many respects, the default mindset of our age. Distrust of government is dangerously high. The 2008 financial meltdown turned many people against once-respected institutions. Big [Name of Industry Here] is the epithet we use to refer to faceless businesses that, from most appearances, are out to screw us.
It’s hard to argue with this response to power. Many of our current systems and institutions richly deserve our cynicism (or at least our outrage). But after so many disenfranchising experiences with them, we often use cynicism as a starting point for any discussion.
That presents a problem. Today’s cynicism is very good at grumbling against, but it has nothing to point to. With no alternative vision in mind, and a first response that seeks out the evil motives or rapacious self-interest behind any lofty idea—or simply proclaims that “it’ll never work in the real world”—this type of cynicism offers no avenue for change.
The word cynic, of course, comes from the Cynics of ancient Greece and their system of ethics. From what I read (note particularly this interesting article from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy), it is easy to see the connection: the Greek Cynics scathingly criticized, even mocked, the societal conventions and systems of privilege of their time. But they also touted a framework of thought through which, they believed, people could achieve freedom: living in accord with nature, practicing self-sufficiency, being frank and free with one’s speech.
In the language of The Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, Inc. (a consultancy with which I’m affiliated), the Cynics had a FROMàTO vision. They clearly saw the insufficient state of affairs they were moving FROM—and the purpose of life they were moving TO.
In so many cases, today’s cynicism has no TO.
That is a corrosive stance in such a vastly imperfect world as ours, in which so many of our systems and problems desperately need a TO. It’s not enough to complain about the current polarization in Congress, or business self-interest run amok, or the corruption that keeps much of the world in extreme poverty—although these things deserve serious attention and, often, loud condemnation. It is not enough to respond to every new idea with “get real” or “that’ll never work.” These cynical responses shut down dialogue on big, potentially useful ideas before they have a chance to be heard (and therefore to develop).
I’m a big fan of realism. As we dream about the ideal, realists keep the dialogue grounded in the possible. But today’s pervasive cynicism doesn’t even have the benefit of being real: it dismisses the possibility of change even where change could actually occur.
It’s so difficult not to be cynical sometimes. But cynicism as a worldview—without the TO—gets us nowhere. Outrage, protest, dialogue, deliberation: all these things can move us ahead. We owe it to ourselves to prefer those strategies over the powerless cynicism of our age.
For more information on The Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, Inc., please visit www.kjcg.com.
We’ve talked a lot about the need for precise language, in dialogue and out. Our dialogues could be so much more productive if we avoided sidetracking them with inflammatory or inaccurate words. Conversely, precise language gives us the best chance of conveying our ideas more clearly to people who might not share or be familiar with them. It is in the spirit of precision that I now wish you:
Every year around this time, there’s a certain level of fuss about that phrase. “It’s the Christmas season, dammit!” goes the line of thought. “Jesus is the reason for the season! Why can’t we just say Merry Christmas?” Happy Holidays, to people who argue this way, is too vapid, too “politically correct,” to describe what December is really about.
I’ll admit that Happy Holidays is kind of vapid. Because of my faith tradition, Christmas is a treasured holy day for me. At church on Christmas Eve, I will be delighted to wish my fellow parishioners Merry Christmas.
Outside of church, though, it’s a different story. The U.S., where I live, is not predominantly Christian as it once was—not by a long shot. Millions of people here are Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, followers of no faith tradition, you name it. And often (as with Hanukkah) their holidays and festivals take place in December as well.
So when I encounter people at the store, or on the street, and I don’t know their faith orientation, Happy Holidays seems the best way to greet them with good cheer while respecting their beliefs about life. If I’m addressing a group—either physically present or virtually, as on Facebook—it’s usually a safe bet that someone in the group doesn’t celebrate Christmas. Happy Holidays is a way of showing respect to those people too.
This is a basic principle for dialogue. Without a perception of respect from their dialogue partner, few people would willingly share their convictions in dialogue. That showing of respect creates a welcoming place in which people feel free to express themselves without fear of recrimination.
So…to my Jewish friends, Happy Hanukkah. To my Christian friends, Merry Christmas. To all my friends, Happy Holidays.
If you scanned the headline quickly, you may have misread it. This is not about taboos in dialogue, like shouting epithets or characterizing anyone left-of-center as a socialist. No, this is about the game Taboo® from Hasbro—and a flight of fancy on a rainy Friday.
In case you’re unfamiliar with Taboo, it’s a party game for four or more players. The game comes with more than 1,000 cards; each card lists a main word and five related words. One player draws a card and, in a short time, tries to get the others to guess the main word. In doing so, however, the card holder cannot use any of the words on the card.
So imagine drawing the card for house and discovering that you can’t say house, home, mortgage, door, window, or family. Or any phrases with those words in them. If you’re a lover of words, it’s a great game.
What if we ran dialogues this way?
Let’s say the dialogue is about the economy. Republicans would articulate their beliefs in detail, but they can’t say socialism, big government, tax and spend, small business, or Obamacare. Democrats would do the same, but they can’t say party of no, middle class, top 1%, fat cat, or wingnut.
Hey, this could be fun.
More to the point, this little exercise might get us away from the loaded words and simplistic catchphrases that our elected officials typically toss at one another. More often than not, these words and phrases mischaracterize the issue, the other side, or both. Even worse, they lead us into thinking that the issues are simpler than they are.
In the game, the inability to use certain words forces the card holder to dig deeper, find new words, explain in more detail. A good deal of fumbling goes on, but every now and then you hear something ingenious—a way of looking at a word you’ve never noticed before.
I wonder whether that could happen in dialogue Taboo. Perhaps, in our search for new words and explanations, we might come across nuances in the issue that we hadn’t seen before. Maybe we would become more open to a range of possible solutions that couldn’t penetrate the sound bites.
Last weekend I helped run a rabbit and cavy show. Though rabbits and cavies don’t speak my language per se, I did learn something about communication (and, by extension, dialogue) from the experience.
Over the past few years, the show’s organizers have done an outstanding job in making the show bigger, better, and friendlier to exhibitors. I have been continually impressed with their energy and good cheer. They needed all of it and more for this year’s show—because the usual location was smack in the middle of flood-ravaged upstate New York.
Not to be deterred, the organizers found an alternate location: same town, but now a hotel high on a hill. Still, there were many questions in the air, and on Facebook things were getting testy. Some exhibitors started to question the wisdom of moving forward with the show. (I was worried about it myself.) Others jumped in to disparage the questioning—and the questioners. Virtual voices were raised. People ascribed ulterior motives to those on the “other side” of the debate. I’m sure some relationships were damaged in the result.
I think that conversation could have gone differently. I wish I had acted differently.
For one thing, I wish the organizers had communicated specific answers to our questions. I believe that in many cases, people act from reasonable motives and assessments, so when I hear their reasons I can often go along with their decision. Even if I disagree with it, I at least understand and appreciate their logic. So perhaps more specifics from the organizers could have defused the Facebook kerfuffle and got us all pulling in the same direction.
But, of course, the organizers are not mind readers. They can’t anticipate every concern. So my part in the general conversation (the part I wish I had played differently, and the part any exhibitor could have played) was to ask the questions. Not inflammatory questions like “How can you possibly have the gall to hold a show when people are suffering?” or “Why are you putting our animals at risk?” but specific questions like “What do you know about conditions that we don’t know? Where can I get information about the roads? How wet is the hill where the outside portion of show is taking place? What can the hotel people tell us? What does the federal disaster area declaration mean for us?”
In a nutshell, here’s what I’ve learned: If you have information, share it. If you should have information (as an event planner, a leader, etc.), go get it and then share it. If you’re not privy to information, ask good questions. Whoever you are, assume good intent on the part of others until proven otherwise.
I think this goes for dialogue in general. Do you really know what the “other side” thinks about the issue at hand? If not, what questions can you ask that will help you understand their thinking? What can you share about your perspective that will help them understand you? Is someone in the dialogue missing key information or access to a respected source that could clear up misunderstanding?
Question for the day: Have you ever been in a dispute where one missing piece of information resolved the whole thing—or at least made it easier to understand where everyone was coming from? Please share your story here.