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Posts Tagged ‘dialogue’

What I’ve Learned from Al Sharpton

My bullshit alarm went off last month. As usual, it forced me to rethink an opinion I’d always just assumed.

The big surprise was who set it off: Al Sharpton.

Here’s what happened. In the wake of the senseless deaths of two NYPD officers, one news item in particular caught my attention: Al Sharpton condemned the shootings.

I have never paid a great deal of attention to Sharpton. What little I had absorbed was overwhelmingly negative: he was an opportunist, a craven showman, an inciter of violence and hatred. So when a conservative friend or relative condemned the reverend, I would simply nod my head and point out that no, not all black people were like Al Sharpton, not all progressives were like Al Sharpton, he was an extreme example.

And when I heard that Sharpton condemned the murders of officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, it struck me as remarkable news. I figured someone in the public square would remark on it. But no: many conservative pundits continued their ongoing assault on Sharpton without missing a beat—without even acknowledging his statement.

That’s when my bullshit alarm went off. It posed this question: “Who exactly informed your opinion of Al Sharpton?”

After a bit of thought, I realized that my opinions came largely from in-laws and friends and media types. Specifically, conservative in-laws and friends and media types.

There’s nothing wrong with reflecting on sources like these. But I try hard not to get all my input from one viewpoint, so a bit of investigation was in order to restore the balance. I spent the better part of an afternoon reading about Sharpton: not what opinionators said about him, but what he said and did, going back at least to the 1990s. (For example: Sharpton’s eulogy at Michael Brown’s funeral and his account of his role in the Crown Heights unrest.)

To summarize: I could not find a single instance of Al Sharpton’s inciting violence. He is vocal and assertive about racial injustice, but he also takes elements of the African-American community to task (as in the Michael Brown eulogy). He has done some divisive and incendiary things, particularly in his early days (the Tawana Brawley affair comes immediately to mind). Perhaps he is opportunistic. Many of his calls for justice sound similar to what I recall hearing in the 1960s. I’m hardly the first person to notice all this: media outlets like Politico and Newsweek have chronicled Sharpton’s evolution.

As I read, a different image of Sharpton began to form in my mind: a particularly colorful mix of virtues and vices (like most of us), who appears to have evolved over time (like most of us). It is hardly a description of the devil incarnate.

So. What are the lessons here?

  1. People can and do change. We need to give them grace to do so. We owe it to them to see and honor their evolving selves and reshape our opinions of them accordingly. This approach, unfortunately, is in short supply, as anyone who’s attended a family reunion—and was treated like she was still 10—can tell you.
  2. There’s no end to our blind spots: instances in which we’ve semi-consciously glommed onto an opinion without even realizing we haven’t thought it through. Openness and humility can help here: humility keeps us attentive to how much we don’t know, while openness motivates us to hear—even more, to seek out—opinions that differ from our own, no matter how “settled” the issue might be for us.
  3. Assume good intent. This is particularly important for people of faith, since most if not all faith traditions require us to extend welcome and compassion to all. Does that mean we trust blindly? No. The gospel admonition to be “shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16) applies here. Skepticism can be healthy. Cynicism born of hostility, not so much.

Have you had to revise an opinion of someone you were absolutely certain about? How did that work for you? Feel free to tell your stories here.

A Brief (and Interfaith) Christmas Meditation

This morning, my email brought me a story in which the author delivered a sefer Torah, the long scroll used in synagogues, to a fledgling Reform community in Israel. The actual hand-off, which took place in an airport, involved some initial consternation:

I took the scroll from its box, passing it carefully to Yael Karrie, [the community’s] student rabbi . Amidst swarms of Orthodox Jews, we weren’t sure how a woman holding a sefer Torah would fare, but we needn’t have worried. No sooner did Yael take the scroll than an elderly woman, her head covered in a scarf, ran up to us, asking if she could kiss the Torah, exclaiming, “May it bring good things for the people of Israel!”

Without realizing it, the older woman crossed a divide simply by expressing the devotion she holds in her heart every day.

That story inspired the first sentence in a brief meditation I wrote from my own tradition (Christianity). I shared it on Facebook, and I share it with you here:

People can be wonderful. People can be horrible. The gospel story of Jesus’ birth contains evidence of both. One reason I follow my faith is that it, like many other faith traditions, assures us that wonderful wins. Or will. To all of you who celebrate it, have a blessed Christmas.

To all of you, may the coming year bring more divides crossed, more bridges built, and a deeper experience of the divine, whatever you conceive it to be.

 

What I’ve Learned from the Race/Policing Conversation

Over the past week or two, I’ve had a number of vigorous and civil conversations about police behavior, the use of force, and race in America. Emerging from those conversations are several points that, I think, are underrepresented right now in the public square. So here is what I’ve heard and learned and come to believe:

  1. We need to listen more and listen better. As I wrote in another article, “By listen, I don’t mean waiting impatiently for the other person to stop so I can have my say. I don’t mean listening through the filter of every belief I’ve ever held. I mean listening that is deep, openhearted, and fully attentive, that strives to experience the other person as she is, to accurately hear what she says.”  Read more here.
  2. We need more both/and. Can we deplore the destruction of property in Ferguson and inquire into the dynamics that gave rise to the underlying anger? Can we express concern about police use of excessive force and note the difficult line that officers walk in carrying out their duties? Can we uphold the value of individual responsibility and acknowledge the broader social trends that make assuming responsibility an uphill climb? If not, why not?
  3. We need space to explore without shame. The dynamics behind the incidents in Ferguson, Cleveland, and other places are new to many people (mostly white people). To fully understand any concept new to us, we humans inevitably fumble around, ask clumsy questions, make rookie mistakes, so that eventually we get it and can be effective in addressing it. Exploration is difficult, however, if we fear being labeled immediately as bad or unacceptable just for asking questions. This happened after 9/11 with the label un-American; I hear it happening now with the label racism. Are some people who ask clumsy questions racist? You bet. Do some hold truly good intent despite their klutziness? Indeed they do.
  4. I wonder if, just maybe, we can restart the conversation in a different place. I have heard commentators address their white readers along these lines: “You are blind to the fact that racism is systemic—baked into our system. Just by being white, you benefit from it. That makes you part of the problem.” Wherever this statement is on the accuracy scale, it usually puts white readers on the defensive, which derails the conversation and leaves us even more polarized. What if we addressed white readers this way: “Did you know that racism is systemic—actually baked into our system? Here’s what I mean….” By separating the system from the individual initially, we might be able to spark not defensiveness but curiosity—and, from curiosity, engagement.
  5. There is a world of hurt around race, and it hurts on all sides. I spent part of yesterday listening to the experience of a friend—a teacher who felt threatened by the aggressive behavior of two students and mentioned it to management. In response, because she is white and the students are black, her entire work group was sent to a seminar on unconscious racism. The shaming she felt is palpable in her storytelling. No, I am not saying that white pain is equal to black pain: not even close. What I am saying is that an acknowledgment of pain from everyone, to everyone, might be a first step in the long, arduous process of opening our hearts to one another.

What do you think—not about the incidents themselves, but about the conversation they have sparked in the public square? What does it tell us about the way we do dialogue?

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?

Arnold Abbott and the Surprising Common Ground

Something in my Facebook feed stopped me cold.

Two somethings, actually. Both had to do with Arnold Abbott, the 90-year-old who, with two pastors, was arrested for feeding homeless people in Fort Lauderdale. Abbott et al. ran afoul of a new city ordinance that addresses what officials see as their homeless problem.

Two posts in my Facebook feed alerted me to the story. The first came from a progressive friend who bemoaned the heartlessness she saw in the city’s response. The second, hard on the heels of the first, came from a conservative friend who bemoaned the heartlessness she saw in the city’s response.

Can anyone say common ground?

Dialogue practitioners use the search for common ground as a powerful strategy for individual dialogues. Common ground humanizes us in the eyes of the other, and vice versa. If you and your convictions make my blood boil, and it comes to light that we feel the same way about something—it could be anything—this discovery can take the edge off my hostility. As my hostility abates, my capacity for listening grows.

So allow me a modest suggestion: let’s extend the search for common ground beyond instances of dialogue—and into every interaction in our lives.

Here’s what it might look like in miniature. One of my Facebook friends, a classmate from my alma mater, is both a rock-ribbed conservative and outspoken about it. Her words are often incendiary, and I have nearly unfriended her more than once. (I’m stunned that she hasn’t unfriended me.)

Every now and then, however, she’ll post something in praise of someone in military service, or in praise of God. I find myself agreeing, and I post a comment standing in solidarity with her. It’s common ground expressed.

Of course, this sort of thing may make no difference at all. But let’s say she and I have to resolve a problem. There’s a small chance that she’ll go into the dialogue thinking, “My goodness, Backman is a liberal jerk. But all in all, he’s not that bad. He loves Jesus, etc.” Her heart opens a little to hearing me. And vice versa: I remember the times we’ve connected, and my heart opens a little.

Maybe it makes the difference between failure and success.

What if we did this on a larger scale? What if we laid the ground for common ground with everyone we know on the “other side”? What are the chances we might become more openhearted in our deepest selves?

Have you ever tried this? What happened?

How Not to Conduct Civic Engagement

I’m so disillusioned with my Town Board right now.

The story starts late last year. One of the newest amendments to the New York Constitution, approved by voters this past November, has paved the way for construction of up to four casinos upstate, including (probably) one in my region. Predictably, some high-powered private partnerships, together with their “host” municipalities, jumped into the competition. One of those municipalities is my town.

Now I have always thought of casinos as a terrible idea, for the usual reasons cited: gambling addiction, crime, property value decline, etc. So, during a morning with Google Scholar, I was surprised to find that the research paints a very mixed picture. Casinos can deliver economic benefits, but intensifying competition is limiting their ability to do so. Addiction is serious business, but the percentage of problem gamblers is around 1-3%. Etc.

So I was more open to the idea of a casino in my town. And I looked forward to our town leaders doing similar web searches, engaging in similar thinking, listening to constituents, and making a reasoned decision.

Apparently, it didn’t turn out that way.

First came an unannounced Town Board meeting during which the members voted unanimously to endorse a casino in the town. In the face of vocal opposition, the Board scheduled a developer presentation and one public hearing with the typical “three minutes at the mike” format. Days later, the Board took a revote, required for technical reasons, and again endorsed the casino unanimously.

Except for the first meeting, this might sound innocuous. The real fly in the ointment, though, was the lack of response to residents’ concerns exhibited throughout the process. During the public hearing, Board members said barely a word. Many of us sent detailed emails asking the Board to conduct due diligence; I (and presumably others) received a form email in return. Most communication about the casino has come from the developers, not the Board. And meeting notes, made public via a Freedom of Information request, seem to indicate that the Board served as marketing partner for the developers from the very beginning—no hint of due diligence or objective analysis whatever.

What can we learn from this?

One Board member complained about the impossible time frame for the whole bid process, let alone any attempts at dialogue or civic engagement, and she has a point. Her objection led me to the handy Engagement Streams Framework, published by the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (where I’m a board member), to see what dialogue processes might have accommodated the compressed schedule. At first glance, the pickings are somewhat slim: a scaled-up version of Conversation Café might have worked, or maybe a variant of the Wisdom Council.

In some ways, though, that’s beside the point. Even if many dialogue processes can’t happen in crunch time, basic communication can: that’s why we have the Internet.  More fundamentally, even the best and most efficient dialogue process assumes a personal orientation to listen. That was what our Board members have, from what I’ve seen, failed to demonstrate.

As a caveat: I attended most of the public meetings but not all of them. I do not know the Board members personally. They might have a compelling backstory that would make sense of their actions in a way residents could respect. Communicating that backstory might have mollified a lot of the hostility—or at least indicated the Board’s sincerity in serving its constituents.

As it is, there are a lot of questions and, in response, an unfortunate silence.

(As always, your comments are welcome. In this case, comments from Board members are most welcome. I would love to hear your take on the situation.)

I Went to a Flame War the Other Day…

…and a civil dialogue broke out.

A few weekends ago I took part in an event related to my hobby. From what I could see, it was very well run, the venue was ideal, and everything went off smoothly. Many people praised the organizers on Facebook, where our colleagues tend to gather.

Then there was Joan (not her real name). In a hobby replete with colorful eccentrics, Joan is one of the most polarizing. Many perceive her as negative, hostile, and the source of much trouble. Others get on quite well with her.

During the event in question, she took issue with one of the requirements for participation. The last night of the event, she took her frustration to Facebook in a long post that derided the organizers for their policy and many other matters.

Things quickly got out of hand. The patter at the bar was angry and occasionally unprintable. Many charges and countercharges were exchanged. The flame war spread to several Facebook pages.

At some point, a light went on in my head. Personally, I thought highly of the requirement that sparked the uproar. But despite all her bluster, I could see that Joan and her allies had a point. Maybe there was a way to make the requirement optional for certain participants—not to appease, but because the situation demanded it. So I threw the idea out there.

Almost immediately, the tone of the conversation changed. Commenters started parsing out alternatives and considering the ramifications of each. Other ideas were raised. There was a decent exchange of views.

And—this is the cool part—the people engaging in this dialogue were the very people involved in the flame war. Joan included.

My usual caveat applies: it may have been my comment that changed the tone, but this is not about me. It’s about the fact that something rather miraculous happened. But what was it? And what can we learn? A few thoughts:

  • In an emotional firestorm, a quiet, thoughtful comment has way more power than you’d expect under other circumstances. It makes room for lurkers, who may be intimidated by the hostility, to speak up. By presenting a third way (in which, hopefully, both sides can see merit), it gives the flame participants a dignified way to stand down. And it simply creates a pause, during which passions may subside. It’s a variation of “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1), unpacked.
  • For whatever reason, we (we Americans? we postmoderns? we humans? I’m not sure) quickly make most issues an either/or. The irony is that few issues actually are either/ors. There’s usually a both/and, or a third alternative, or a middle way. It saves us energy if, right from the get-go, we can look at an emerging either/or standoff and think, “What else might be a solution here? What would a both/and look like?”
  • We (this is definitely we humans) attach ourselves to so many things: our possessions, our relationships, our body image—and our convictions. There are times at which upholding and defending our convictions is of the utmost importance. But many things we attach to are, in the grand scheme of things, peripheral. Buddhism has long articulated the value of non-attachment, and I think it applies here. If we can approach our ideas and opinions with non-attachment, we can be more flexible in letting them go when the situation requires it.

What do you think? What lessons do you draw from this story? Feel free to share here.

 

Dialogue, Our Deepest Convictions, and a Knock on the Head

Lately I’ve been drawing lines in the sand.

This is not like me. Being a dialogue guy, I tend to hear news reports and imagine the complexity of an issue, the not-unreasonableness of all sides, the way in which my view could be wrong.

But suddenly, when yet another sexual assault charge goes south, I think, “This has got to stop.” When NPR reports the Department of Defense’s research into robots that can wage war, all I can think is “No, no, NO.” Damn the subtleties of the individual case. It’s time to take a stand.

Part of this, I think, is the concussion. Last month, I went headfirst into the snow while cross-country skiing and sustained what, in the grand scheme of things, is probably a mild concussion. Whatever mild means. As is typical of concussions, symptoms seem to come and go at random, you go two steps forward and one step back, it can take weeks to make progress.

I know what this sounds like. It sounds like the concussion made me unable to handle nuance—clear evidence that drawing lines in the sand is the domain of stupid people.

But obviously that’s wrong. Some of our brilliant thinkers have written about the power of convictions and not giving ground. (Shameless plug: I wrote about two of these thought leaders recently, both theologians, and how their thinking about “convicted civility” doesn’t go quite far enough.)

And the more I write, the more appreciation I have for the value of convictions. They represent, in many cases, a lifetime of wrestling with ideas. They form an important part of what we bring to the world. At the same time, I’m all too aware of the destructive power of holding one’s convictions with an iron grip, impervious to other ideas or even hard data.

Maybe what I’m saying is this:

Maybe my line in the sand is not conviction so much as it is impulse: not impulse as in impulse buying, but impulse as an involuntary reflex of the soul. Such an impulse would come from an unutterably deep place within us—a place common to all of us. We respond from this place when we think of children abused by sexual predators, or Syrian civilians caught in a barbaric crossfire, or frail people with no support system and nowhere to go.

The impulse says: Something is wrong here, and must be made right.

This impulse does not remove the importance of hearing all sides, of considering the nuances of each individual case. But it is a cry for universal values among us: a cry for justice, a cry for compassion, a cry for community.

In fact, sometimes the impulse shapes the dialogue. Example: Many state pension funds are losing the ability to fulfill their obligations to retired employees. On one level, this issue comes down to math: if you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money, and retirees will have to find another way. But I hear the impulse saying: dammit, Government, you made a promise to these people, and promises must be kept. Suddenly we have two powerful, countervailing forces—one a function of cold hard realities, the other a function of moral imperative—and thus a place to start a robust dialogue.

This is new to me, and yet a very, very old idea in general. (Look at how zealous the God of the Bible is about making things right.) What do you think? How does all this fit together?

Interfaith Dialogue in One’s Own House

Sometimes, when we least expect it, we are called to live out what we say or think. Some people do this very, very well.

Professor Paul F. Knitter had explored and taught interfaith dialogue for many years when his wife converted from the Catholic faith they shared to Buddhism. As he writes, it was not enough for him to accept his wife’s change of heart. It was not even enough to actively affirm it. He had to engage her newfound faith—and let it reshape his own. What happened as a result is one of the best illustrations of dialogue’s possibilities that I’ve seen. So I will get out of the way and let Professor Knitter tell you his story.

More to the News Story than Meets the Eye

It doesn’t feel good to criticize The PBS NewsHour. The program is one of my favorite sources of news and insight; the producers take extraordinary care in selecting guests for each segment, bringing together experts that together present a careful, balanced, in-depth analysis.

This past Friday, though, one segment disturbed me—and, in the process, served to remind me of the need for a “balanced media diet.”

The story concerned the recent violence in Iraq’s Anbar province, and the role of al-Qaeda therein. I was delighted with their choice of guests: former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and former Marine Captain Bing West, who spent a great deal time in Anbar and has written extensively on the war.

The longer they talked, though, the less I could escape the nagging sense that a huge part of the story was missing.

This nagging sense didn’t come in a vacuum. Last September, at a conference on communication and conflict, I heard a penetrating analysis by Ahmed Hassin, a researcher at Australia’s Deakin University, on the role of traditional clans in supporting the nascent democracy in Iraq. Ahmed’s presentation astounded me with a level of nuance that is almost impossible to find in American reporting on the Middle East.

That nuance haunted me as I listened to the NewsHour guests. So I decided to take a look at Iraqi news sources to see what they had to say.

Sure enough, there was a lot more to this story than met the eye.

Crocker and West spoke confidently about al-Qaeda overplaying its hand, the clans united against al-Qaeda, and even “good guys” and “bad guys.” Aswat al Iraq and Iraq Daily described Sunni-Shiite tensions over the lack of Sunni representation in government, security forces’ breakup of a Sunni protest site, the resignation of 44 Members of Parliament over said breakup, etc.

Were Crocker and West wrong? Not necessarily. It’s hard to dispute calling al-Qaeda “the bad guys,” of course. Widespread clan resistance to al-Qaeda may still be in place. Still, the Iraqi news media made it clear that the situation is more nuanced—and perhaps less boldly optimistic—than the NewsHour guests described it.

The point here is not so much to sort out the “real story” in this specific situation as it is to point out the value of the “balanced media diet”: news from sources diverse in terms of geography, nationality, political orientation, culture, even ethnicity and gender. When we absorb this diversity of news, we see that few stories are as simple as one news segment from a single source will make them appear. Certainly few stories are as simple as partisans make them out to be.

Once we see the depth and nuance behind an issue, we realize what we know and, more important, how much we don’t know. This realization, in turn, can fuel our curiosity—and our willingness to hear others whose views may not be the same as ours. Over time, we start looking for depth and nuance in other issues, which gives rise to nagging discomfort like the type I felt during the NewsHour segment.

Have you ever noticed this? Did a news story leave you with the feeling that something was wrong, or at least incomplete? Feel free to share your story here.