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I cherish the difficult questions that readers and listeners raise. Occasionally, though, a question goes from difficult to cringeworthy, and it takes me to places I don’t want to go.
A listener to my New Dimensions radio interview posed one of these queries:
What if the two different opinions [in a dialogue] are at such intense odds with each other that there can be no middle ground to achieve any sort of mutual progress? For instance if I were speaking to an individual who was a member of NAMBLA, there would be zero desire to understand his position more deeply. It’s wrong, whatever his position is…period.
I had never heard of NAMBLA, so I did an online search and found myself face-to-face with the North American Man-Boy Love Association. That’s when I cringed. YIKES. Talk about pushing the point.
Truth be told, I’m not ready for a dialogue on this topic. For one thing, a central practice related to this organization is illegal throughout the U.S. For another, the whole topic strikes a lot of raw nerves for me, including some from my faith tradition. My book includes a couple of chapters on when dialogue fails—or, perhaps better, when we fail at dialogue—and for me, this may be an example of failure.
So is the questioner right? Is zero dialogue on this topic the way to go here? Is zero dialogue with such a person the way to go? At all times, in all places, for all people? I’m still not sure. Here’s the gist of my response:
Yes, particularly from the vantage point of a worldview such as Christianity, some things are wrong. More broadly, there’s a general (if not universal) consensus about the evil of certain actions: murder comes to mind. With that baseline, I still see value in dialogue even with people whose practices and opinions are noxious to us, for a few reasons:
- We can disagree vehemently on one issue and yet agree—and even work together—on other issues. If our NAMBLA member had a wealth of knowledge on providing services to the homeless, and I was passionate about homeless issues, would it not be worth exploring whether we could collaborate despite our differences over NAMBLA?
- Dialogue allows us to understand what we oppose in greater depth—and thus oppose it more persuasively and more effectively. However, that leads us to the next point (and hear me correctly here):
- Truth isn’t always what we think it is. Remember when faithful Christians thought the holy words of Scripture approved the practice of slavery, or the subjugation of women? Now, I don’t ever want to come out of a dialogue with, say, Bashir Assad thinking that the use of chemical weapons is a good thing. But there are many other instances in which authentic dialogue, where we listen to the other person openheartedly, can move us closer to a greater understanding of the truth—whether or not that truth is what the other person is saying.
- We dialogue with other people because, no matter how noxious their opinions, we share at least one common bond with them: we are all human beings, worthy of being valued in our humanness as God’s creatures. Here the command of Jesus to “love [even] our enemies” is evident in all its implications—from the profound depth of its compassion to its equally profound capacity to make us squirm.
I can’t say that these points leave me in a comfortable space—not in this instance, anyway. But dialogue has never promised us comfort and ease. It does offer a way forward with our fellow human beings, however right, wrong, or otherwise they may be. It offers a way to practice the most fundamental imperative of nearly every wisdom tradition: compassion.
We all have our own “folk wisdom” about the way the world works. As we live out our lives, we observe things and create hypotheses from them. I suspect that most of this folk wisdom holds at least a grain of truth and a dollop of wisdom.
One of my folk wisdoms goes by the name of “rules and rascals.”
Here’s how it works. Many circumstances in the human condition—particularly the social, political, and religious dimensions—are subject to the interplay of two forces. The rules express the way things are, the conditions at the time, the “shoulds” of our life together. In some cases, the reasons are clear and the rules compelling. Thou shalt not kill is as relevant today as when God handed down the message to Moses millennia ago. In other cases, the rules were established in a completely different time and place, sometimes for reasons now lost to history.
Meanwhile, the rascals are those people who push against the rules, test their validity, and toss out directives that no longer apply or, worse, have destroyed people’s lives. The word rascal is often thought of as pejorative, but not here. Under this definition, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a rascal. So was Gandhi. The rules they confronted absolutely had to come down.
Alas, the “right” or “wrong” of any given rule or rascal is not always as clear as Thou shalt not kill or Dr. King’s mission. Some workplaces, for instance, might push the ideal of collaboration into every practice and procedure. A rascal might push back on that, not by rejecting collaboration utterly, but by pointing out the value of solo work and how the two ideals, working together, might produce a better result in the long run. In such cases, the action of the rascal might modify a good rule to make it better, rather than eliminate an evil practice like segregation.
Here’s the bottom line. Most of the time, in the grand interplay of rules and rascals, we need both.
It is so easy to lose sight of this. In my deepest self, I tend toward the rascal side of the spectrum (and it probably is a spectrum, rather than an either-or). I chafe against rules that seem to make no sense. But then, on occasion, a “rule person” will give me the context for a given rule, revealing to me the value in it. Then I get it. I may even become a defender of that rule.
The problem comes when I forget that we need both: when my mindfulness of this need gets overwhelmed by my frustration or defensiveness or fear. When those forces take over, they prevent me from remaining open to the person on “the other side”…the very person whose perspective I need to hear…the person whose wisdom I could tap in dialogue.
Of course, this lesson extends well beyond rules and rascals. It’s hard to fathom at this point in history—when people on both sides of whatever just want to throttle one another—but Democrats could benefit from perspectives that Republicans can provide. Conservatives can make use of insights that liberals have to offer. None of us has enough perspective on an issue that we can look at “the other side” and say, “I don’t need you.” If, however, we acknowledge that need and approach the other with curiosity and openness, we begin to discover more of the truth—or at least more about the other person—and to build a bond that stretches across divides.
Breaks are good, no matter how much we love what we do. With that as inspiration, I’ll be taking some year-end vacation time, so this space will be on hiatus for the rest of 2009. We’ll restart the discussion in January. I wish you the most blessed of holidays.
Welcome to The Dialogue Venture. I’m so looking forward to hearing your insights on dialogue, sharing some of the things I’ve learned, and—I hope—build one more community in which people can talk with civility and compassion.
The About page tells my story in a nutshell, but I thought you might want to know how I became so intrigued with dialogue in the first place.
It all started during the Reagan presidency. As public officials argued about the economy and national defense and Nicaragua, I noticed that each side came to the “dialogue” with its own set of facts—the set that fit its agenda. Neither side would concede the accuracy of the other’s facts, let alone discuss interpretations or analyses.
Before I knew it, I saw the same pattern across the social spectrum: bitter exchanges over abortion and gay marriage, Republicans toward Democrats, liberals toward conservatives. Families, too, had their own problems with communication, putting up defenses and marshaling arguments and counterarguments. People were talking not with, or even to, but past one another.
How can we resolve anything that way?
At the same time, the questions that emerged from my relationship with Holy Cross Monastery led me to reconsider how we dialogue. When we discuss the issues of the day, why can’t we talk rather than shout?
That led me to consider a new approach to dialogue…which led to the book, and the blog, etc.
That’s it in a nutshell. What about you? What brings you here? I’d love to hear your story. Feel free to share here or, if you’re more reserved, contact me directly.