Posts Tagged ‘dialogue’

Things Change Slowly Because They’re Bigger Than We Think

It takes a long time to turn a big ship.

This maritime lesson keeps popping up in my life these days. It has profound echoes for much of my work: for dialogue, for spiritual direction, for our lifelong transformation from people of self-interest to people of God.

It also sheds light on world affairs, as today’s readings for Morning Prayer indicated.

The lectionary—the fixed schedule of psalms and Bible passages to be read during the daily cycle of prayer in churches and monasteries—brought me to Psalm 83, a difficult psalm for us 21st-century folks. The psalmist asks God to wreak havoc on Israel’s foes, and a picture emerges: that of Israel, a beleaguered nation, all alone in the world, surrounded by enemies that wish to obliterate it.

Sound familiar? Listen to the commentary from Israel and its friends in 2017, and you get the same picture.

The point of this post is not to assess the accuracy of this picture, or tout one side or the other, or analyze the endless complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Other people are far more qualified to do that. What strikes me today, instead, is simply this: the way that Israel perceives itself in 2017 is old.  Very old. More than two millennia old.

Maybe that’s one huge reason why Israel and the Arab world can’t “just settle their differences”—why they just can’t sit around a table and dialogue through the issues and come to a tidy resolution. This has been going on for century after century. It’s a big ship. Maybe 50 years is nowhere near enough to turn it.

Our individual lives reflect this same dynamic. In my first meeting with a new client, I’ll ask what brings them to spiritual direction, and they’ll provide some sort of “presenting issue.” At this point, I assume we’ll work through the issue for a few months, maybe even a year, get it squared away, and then go deeper into this person’s spiritual life.

Wrong. As it turns out, the presenting issue is not some tidy, compartmentalized quandary. Rather, it’s rooted deeply in the entire infrastructure of that person’s soul. We might spend the rest of our professional relationship coming back to it. It’s a big ship.

What do we do with the big ships, in our lives and in our world? The obvious response is patience: as a monk in my monastery puts it, we must learn to “make haste slowly.” That’s especially relevant in our go-go culture, where intense speed and 24/7 availability and overcrammed schedules are touted as virtues.

But there’s a hitch. Whenever things move slowly—particularly when I have some responsibility for helping them move—it’s easy to wonder whether they’re moving at all. Am I really helping, or are my actions making no difference? Is there a way to speed things up that I’ve missed? Should I devote myself to some more productive pursuit, with more tangible results?

Have you grappled with this too: times when life’s difficulties don’t resolve as fast as you’d like? Times when nothing you do seems to move the needle? How do you manage in that reality?

 

P.S. Just in case you’re in the market for arcane knowledge, here’s a fun read about big ships and, especially, how to avoid getting killed by one.

 

Rx for Your Trump Hangover

Note: this piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post on January 31. It’s written primarily for my progressive friends, and the intent is not to bash Mr. Trump (though I do criticize him–in a measured way, I hope–where I think it’s accurate and essential to the argument). Rather, it’s become clear that many, many people are struggling to cope with their inner turmoil in the wake of the U.S. presidential election; after two months of my own struggling, I’ve found something like a way forward, so I’m sharing it in the hope that it’ll help. 

Ever since November 8, like so many other people, I’ve been wrestling with Trump hangover.

Perhaps you know the symptoms. Vague but persistent anxiety. Occasional nausea. An overwhelming sluggishness. The nagging sense that you should be “over this by now.”

Being a spiritual writer, I took all of these symptoms, as well as their underlying cause, into prayer and contemplation, weighing a lot of input from various sources. Finally, the beginnings of a treatment regimen are starting to take shape, and I thought I’d share in case it helps.

First, the obvious but easily forgotten fact: Trump hangover is widespread, and you’re not making a mountain out of a molehill. The evidence indicates that the transition to President Trump is a seismic shift in the way the president treats the presidency—a shift to less stable ground. If you’re anxious, it’s with good reason.

It doesn’t help that Mr. Trump is a master at keeping his drama in the headlines—daily and sometimes continually. Between our always-on news culture and our relentless social media stream, we can’t even begin to recover from the last headline when the next one comes.

If you’ve struggled to keep your head above water, it’s because you’re immersed in a tidal wave.

In my own inner work around Trump hangover, I’ve had to make some rigorous distinctions that, before, I could slide by without making. News vs. commentary. Substantial news vs. not really news. Policy developments vs. the white noise of our public square. All in the service of regaining my center, preserving my integrity, re-establishing my boundaries, so I can think and act from a place of deep stability.

What does this look like in practice? For me, it goes something like this:

  • Diagnosing the root cause. It’s important to see that, beyond the normal policy differences and Cabinet appointments that serve as fodder for disagreement, two peculiar traits underpin the Trump administration so far: an apparent absence of sustained thought, and a disregard for shared meaning. Words and phrases are used more for effect in the moment—and just as quickly forgotten—than to make policy arguments over time. We are asked to believe official pronouncements over what we apprehend with our eyes and ears. Compelling factual evidence is dismissed with simple denials. In a world where the way we learn things means nothing, we lose our footing. Which leads to the boundary-setting steps:
  • News intake strategy 1: distinguishing fact from commentary from blather. For a while now, I have found it useful to focus my attention only on what the president does, not on what he says, or what others say about him. I’m also ignoring most commentary, as it simply inflames my anger without contributing anything of substance. (Two exceptions for me: David Brooks and Kathleen Parker.) For right now, just the facts, ma’am.
  • News intake strategy 2: look-screen-decide. Whenever I see a Trump-related news item, I look at the headline, then screen it for whether it’s (a) actual fact vs. commentary vs. blather, and (b) actual news about something of substance, vs., well, the opposite. If the topic is substantive, I read the article; if not, I ignore it with the mantra “not news, don’t care.” This keeps me away from such tempests-in-teapots as the controversy over crowd size at the inauguration. (A positive side effect: this look-screen-decide technique also helps me blithely ignore 90% of social media political posts.)
  • Picking your spots. For years I have cared deeply about dialogue across divides, and I want to continue that work. Anyone with family and friends on the “other side” has an interest in doing the same. For me, nothing about that sort of dialogue has to change, except one thing: I’m no longer interested in talking about Mr. Trump specifically. You want to talk gun rights, immigration policy, deregulation of healthcare, I’m up for it. Defend Mr. Trump’s behavior to me, and my mental health requires that I draw the line.

What does this give me? A sense of power, of agency, of proper boundaries set. It feels as though I’ve regained ownership of my own feelings and actions. I get to be an engaged citizen, but a healthy engaged citizen.

If early days are any indication, the news is going to be a tough emotional slog for the next four years. But maybe this will allow me to get through with my deepest self intact. May it do the same for you.

In Mr. Trump’s Escher World, Is Dialogue Under Assault?

There’s been a lot of talk in the dialogue field since the U.S. presidential election. Practitioners are talking about the meaning of Donald Trump’s victory for dialogue efforts, our collective failure to listen to a wide swath of the American electorate, etc. Many have voiced the belief that we need dialogue more than ever.

And yet, ever since hearing this talk, something has felt off to me. I’m just starting to put my finger on it, and I’m surprised by how dire it feels. In a nutshell, if I’m seeing this right, the very underpinnings of dialogue are under assault.

Consider three of these underpinnings:

Words mean things. To state the obvious: dialogue depends on words. To understand each other, we have to agree on the meanings of those words, or at least understand each other’s meanings. If we don’t, how can I can begin to know what you’re saying?

Yet this very notion is going away. All too often Mr. Trump appears to use the first word that comes into his mind, not caring what it might mean or connote. He makes great use of “throwaway lines,” easy to deny or reinterpret later. Or he dismisses what he’s said as “locker-room talk.” It’s as if, in this new era, words really don’t mean anything, and we should dismiss the value of any given word or phrase. What kind of dialogue could possibly arise from that?

Believe your own eyes. There’s a reason police officers are now being equipped with body cameras, or private investigators take photos of people in compromising positions. We believe what our eyes (and ears, nose, etc.) tell us. By and large, we should: they’re pretty reliable. So we consider video and photographs compelling evidence.

Yet so often, when confronted with video of himself saying something, Mr. Trump says, “I never said that.” How can there be any room for the give-and-take of dialogue once you get to “This evidence says you said x”/”I never said x”?

The truth will set you free. While objective truth is a slippery concept—and often not the primary aim of dialogue, which may tilt more toward mutual understanding, conflict resolution, etc.—a certain dedication to the pursuit of truth can promote dialogue in compelling ways. If we aim for truth, we move beyond ourselves in pursuit of something larger. We hold our convictions more lightly to inquire what this truth might be. As a result, we are more open to hearing others’ perspectives on truth: the kind that come forth in dialogue.

It’s one thing to say we cannot ever arrive at most truths. It’s another to stop caring about truth entirely. Mr. Trump’s behavior implies that he is not concerned with the accuracy of any statement he makes. I hear this same sort of thing from some of his supporters. If we can say anything without caring if it’s true, what is our dialogue but babble?

Now weirdly, each of these corrosive trends has a healthy flipside. It’s good to take the words of another “seriously but not literally”: we do well to consider the context in which they’re said, the background of the person who says or writes them, the surrounding culture that shapes the meanings of words, etc. Similarly, it’s good to step back and consider that the “compelling video” might have a context of its own. (Plus, there’s Photoshop.) And we know the value of skepticism about truth claims.

But here’s the thing: in each of these healthy flipsides, there is one thing present that is absent from the current Trump-inspired manifestation: thought. Without thought, dialogue truly becomes babble.

I have no idea what to do with this. Perhaps we who care about dialogue will have to fight in some way for these underpinnings, to insist they be observed. Maybe we defend them at every point where we find them assailed. Maybe we simply do our own dialogue thing and thereby serve as a witness to its power in a world of degraded communication.

What do you think?

Is Dialogue Even Safe in the Trump Era?

As you may have gleaned from the last post, the state of the U.S. is troubling me on a deep level. It has, among other things, left me with no stomach for dialogue—a very strange position for the host of a website called The Dialogue Venture.

This made more sense to me in the immediate wake of the presidential election. A seismic shift like the election of Donald Trump takes some processing. But it’s now December and I still don’t want to talk.

I may, however, be starting to figure out why. And the reasons may bump into some of America’s deepest divides like a dentist’s drill on a raw nerve.

(Warning: some of what follows may induce eyerolling and the no shit, Sherlock response. I will completely understand. More than that, you may know from experience that I’ve got some important stuff in here totally wrong. If that’s true, please tell me.)

Here’s the thing: Reaching out to others in dialogue is a vulnerable act. Just saying “I want to dialogue with you” requires that we let our guard down. This is difficult enough when we do it from a position of strength—when the balance of power is at least equal (or tips to our side), when we feel safe and stable, when we perceive no threats on the horizon.

It’s nearly impossible when those strengths are missing.

As I wrote in my last post, no one who feels disrespected—or invalidated, or invisible, or in any way marginalized—wants to talk with their disrespecters. More broadly, no one wants to talk when they sense a clear and present danger in their environment, when opening up to dialogue carries a high risk of yet another, deeper wound. Only the saintly or heroic can even think of reaching out when vulnerable.

Before November 8—as a white, suburban, straight, genderfluid person—I perceived myself as in a position of relative strength or stability. Yes, people could mock my gender identity, but they were usually strangers and their voices were few. The election of Donald Trump, with his chronic denigration of others, has changed that. Suddenly being different—or even welcoming difference—leaves one open to disrespect and, sometimes, much worse.

It feels like a dark place. And yet there is one fascinating glimmer of light. I wonder if my sense of vulnerability is a teeny-tiny glimpse into the world of so many who have been disrespected every day, all day long, for decades, even centuries.

This feels like what I’ve read about the experience of African Americans, and why many of them view white people’s efforts to reach across divides with distrust and suspicion. This feels like what I’ve read as the reasons for separatist movements. This feels like what I know personally, from my experience as a genderfluid person, as frustration with having to explain, over and over again, who I am and why I am, when people who fit the cultural mold never have to explain. (To make things even more complicated, I know that sometimes it’s really important that I do explain myself, as I wrote here.)

Now, looping back to what I wrote last week:

No one who feels disrespected wants to dialogue with their disrespecters—and we all feel disrespected.

This apparently includes supporters of Mr. Trump. We have all heard the narrative: for a sizable chunk of the U.S. population—many of them middle or working class, living in rural areas, scraping to get by—the impact of global trends has been brutal. Their wages have stagnated, at best, for decades. No one in power, according to this view, is listening to them.

So if they get approached by an affluent professor from a big city, saying, “I want to dialogue with you,” why would they want to?

Now in fact some researchers—like Katherine Cramer from the University of Wisconsin—have made this work. That doesn’t obviate the fact that, for many of us right now, curling into our own worldviews and living there awhile sounds pretty good.

I don’t know what to do with all this. One imperative seems clear: if people don’t want to dialogue right now, we need to respect the living hell out of that. They have some very good reasons. Maybe the only thing we can do now is one-half the hard work of dialogue: shut up and listen.

Are These Dark Times for Dialogue?

 

Right after the U.S. presidential election, the dialogue field seemed to launch itself into activity. A November 14 post on the blog of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation proclaimed that “dialogue & deliberation is more critical than ever” and invited professionals to share their post-election activities. Based on the 34 responses in the Comments field—a huge number for most blogs these days—there’s a lot going on.

I’m sure some of this activity, even most of it, will prove fruitful in some way. Yet I cannot shake the gut feeling that we, as a field, are missing a very, very big point.

Specifically, I wonder if our prospects for authentic dialogue—at least on the national, global, policy, big-issue levels—have turned very dark indeed. I wonder whether the obstacles to further dialogue have become insurmountable, at least in the short term.

Here’s why I’m wondering this:

  1. It’s unclear to me that Trump supporters want to dialogue at all. Several disparate observations lead me to this.
    • Over several months, on my own social media feed, I put out several calls for Trump supporters to share the thinking behind their support. I received thoughtful, in-depth answers from precisely two people. Everyone else, even when approached directly, gave me evasions at best.
    • Separate from this effort, I’ve noticed that social media comments and posts from Trump supporters are nearly free of original content. (Before you think I’m jumping to the conclusion that Trump supporters are stupid, see point 2 below.)
    • In mainstream media, buckets of ink have been spilled reporting (and in some cases publishing research) on why Mr. Trump has attracted so much enthusiasm. There are many reasons why “the media” may have missed the whys and wherefores of this support. But could one of them be that many Trump supporters simply do not want to talk about it?
    • In NCDD (where I just finished two terms as a board member), we have long bemoaned the dearth of conservative voices among our membership. Some have pondered whether dialogue is a “liberal thing.” At the recent biannual conference, I don’t recall talking with anyone who supported Mr. Trump.
  2. No one who feels disrespected wants to dialogue with their disrespecters—and we all feel disrespected. I’ve noticed this within myself since November 8: amid all the talk of “reaching out to Trump supporters” to try understanding them, I want someone to reach out to me. Do Trump supporters feel the same way? Have they felt the same way for a long time? A corollary of this is “explanation fatigue”: people in marginalized groups often find themselves having to explain who they are and why they are, so putting the onus on them to explain themselves again in dialogue just adds to their sense of otherness and disrespect.
  3. The fissures are so much deeper, and more ancient, than we thought. I’ve been reading an in-depth history of the U.S. between 1788 and 1800, when factions and partisanship first became part of the political landscape. Some aspects of that history are so very familiar: a divide between city and country (link to brilliant and profane article on this topic here), between centralized government and small government advocates, between slave owners and abolitionists. I have no doubt that you could trace these divides much further back as well. Yes, the rise of Mr. Trump may be about immigration or economic opportunity in 2016—and these issues are important—but they do not begin to explain the divides of centuries. I don’t see our current attempts at dialogue even beginning to address this.
  4. In a post-truth society, we have nothing to dialogue with. The very nature of dialogue implies a search for truth of some kind: the truth of the other person’s experience, at least, if not some kind of transpersonal truth (e.g., gravity exists, slavery is universally wrong). We dialogue because there are truths we don’t know, either about the other or about the world. Mr. Trump’s campaign seems to have ushered in an era where one can say anything, claim anything, without regard for the accuracy or truth value of that statement. What then forms the content of our conversation? It can be anything, it can go anywhere, without regard for reality. This is not dialogue. It is not even conversation.

I dearly hope someone will read this and explain precisely why I’m wrong. I would love to think that dialogue efforts can proceed as they did before November 8—the same tools, the same techniques, the same spirit and attitude—just accelerated. But I don’t see it. What do you see?

Why I’m Not Inclined to Dialogue Right Now

Last week in this space, we discussed “a time for dialogue and a time to shut up.” In line with my contemplative nature, I’ve opted for the latter recently, sitting in silent prayer with the wreckage of the U.S. presidential election and seeing what bubbles to the surface.

What has bubbled to the surface is impatience.

I’ve had no use for rehashing the results or joining in the collective fury of many people on the left. I have turned my attention away from analysis, predictions, commentary, and punditry of all types. Weirdest of all, my colleagues are mobilizing for dialogue efforts, and I just can’t join them.

What I do want—what in fact I’m craving—are facts.

I have little interest in what Mr. Trump says at this point, but I want to know what he does. Right now, it’s all about who he appoints to his administration: their qualifications, their temperament. On January 21, it’ll be about the policies he pushes, the executive orders he signs, the treaties he abrogates (or doesn’t). Don’t tell me what it means; don’t tell me what you think about it; just give me the facts.

The other day, I realized that my hunger for “just the facts” is part of something bigger. It’s a craving for truth—or at the very least, an unblinking pursuit of truth.

I’m craving truth because I’ve barely heard any for more than a year now. Mr. Trump has built a history of chronic, continual lying. Secretary Clinton is hardly simon-pure herself. Social media is littered with memes and news stories with next to no truth value. Each side is armed with its own “facts,” to which it clings regardless of evidence to the contrary.

But here’s the thing: dialogue’s value is greatly diminished if we don’t care about truth.

Yes, we can still dialogue to understand one another, to glimpse another’s pain and struggles up close, to foster empathy. That’s still terribly important. But if the point is to work together on society’s problems—what professionals call deliberation—forget it. You can’t agree on what to do if you don’t agree on what’s happening.

Some people might raise objections at this point. No one can uncover absolute truth (if it even exists). My truth is different from your truth. What’s more important is common understanding. Etc. There’s merit in these points, to be sure.

But to dismiss the pursuit of truth entirely is wrongheaded. Consider: Gravity exists. Slavery is wrong. Smoking causes cancer. There was a point at which all of these points were not regarded as truth. Now they are. Over the eons, we have learned things about the cosmos, and we assert those things as true, because we have inquired into the truth of the matter.

This pursuit of truth energizes dialogue. Here’s what I wrote in my book:

The whole point of raising [the commitment to truth in a book on dialogue] is its power to bring us together. When we are passionate about truth—not truth as we see it, but truth in itself—we eagerly seek out anyone whose perspective might shed light on that truth. That draws us into an exploration of diverse ideas with other people. In other words, truth seeking as a habit of the heart draws us straight into dialogue.

So for now, for me, facts first. Pursuit of truth first. There’ll be plenty of time for the essential work of dialogue—later.

A Time for Dialogue, a Time to Shut Up

You may find the title of this post somewhat odd, especially for a blog about dialogue. But the aftermath of the U.S. election has brought up some things for me, and they have to do with silence.

Silence looms large for me. For years I’ve been practicing contemplative prayer, in which we sit silently before God, opening our hearts wide to the susurrations of the Spirit. This practice has changed my life in all kinds of difficult and wonderful ways.

Not surprisingly, then, silence has been my go-to place since November 9, when the wreckage of this savage, unending campaign became all too apparent.* I was not ready to take up the facile calls for “healing” and “reconciliation” that pop up at the end of every campaign. To me, this earth-shaking event required serious reflection. So I opted for a season of silence and introspection—or, as I wrote on Facebook, “just sitting before God with the damage we have wrought.”

One side effect of silence is that you start to notice things. In the past week, two things have come to mind.

For one, I’ve been dumbstruck by how, as a collective culture, we never shut up. Not ever. Right on the heels of the election came a torrent of words: angry rejoinders, petitions, redoubled commitments to causes, new strategies for dialogue as a response to the election, and yes, the usual calls for unity. All of them facilitated by the relentless 24/7ness of social media.

None of these are bad things in themselves. Quite the opposite, in fact. They’re the very stuff of our life together, and certainly of a robust democracy. But in that maelstrom, the value of silence easily gets lost.

So does the value of the other thing that’s come to mind: simply living with the “negative” for a while. Many commentators would like to speed past the rage, fear, and dread to get to new plans and initiatives and countermeasures for a brighter future. Again, Lord knows, we need plans and initiatives and countermeasures. At some point.

But when we sit with the “negative,” I think, we tap into a deeper place from which our actions became more heartfelt, more authentic, and maybe more fruitful.

For example: In my reflections over the past eight days, my horror has moved to lamentation—which connects me deeply to the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures. Large swaths of their writings are consumed with bewailing the utter ruin of their beloved Jerusalem in 587/586 B.C.E. Some of the psalms written in this period paint a terrifying picture of loss, despair, and rage.

We postmoderns don’t like this sort of thing. We want to get right to the good stuff. But the prophets teach us that dwelling with suffering connects us deeply to life as it is, and to others who suffer (which is all of us). When billions of our human compadres suffer daily, don’t we do well to get (as the prophet Isaiah writes) “acquainted with grief”? What deep wells of compassion and empathy for others might be tapped when we live with suffering ourselves?

Maybe this difficult silence is only for me. Maybe we really need millions of hands on deck, right now, to start changing things for the better, fend off the tide of racism, etc. But maybe we need some of this silence too. I know I do. What about you?

*Full disclosure: I have been truly interested in seeking dialogue with Trump supporters, and I still am: their sense of feeling left behind, to name one thing, has been massively underheard over the past 20 years. At the same time, I see the election of Mr. Trump as a travesty, and since understanding that view is essential to understanding this post, I’m admitting it here.

Donald vs. Facts: China

Today we bring you a public service courtesy of The Dialogue Venture.

The most disturbing aspect of the U.S. presidential campaign, for me, is how unhinged from reality it has become. Truth and nuance are casualties of most campaigns, but this year I see a widespread assumption that opinions matter and truth does not. The obligation to back up one’s rhetoric with facts and sober analysis is gone.

When things get unhinged, you fix the hinge. So let’s try.

For starters, I strolled over to the website of the man most blamed for unhinging the campaign, one Donald J. Trump—specifically, to his Positions page. The first thing that struck me was the number of issues on which he’s articulated positions here: five. Just five. All of them are issues worth exploring: immigration, the Second Amendment, others. But the gaps are, well, huge: nothing on the economy in general, foreign policy, race….

Putting that aside, I dove into his China policy. As a cornerstone of that policy, he promises that “on day one of the Trump administration the U.S. Treasury Department will designate China as a currency manipulator” (underlining in the original). This action, says the policy statement, will “force China to the negotiating table and open the door to a fair—and far better—trading relationship.”

How much of that makes sense? Let’s look at some facts and sober analysis to find out.

I turned to such sources as Foreign Policy, Econ Focus (published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond), and The Washington Post, mainly. Here’s what I found out:

  • We’ve done this before, and it didn’t work. The U.S. Treasury slapped China (as well as Japan and Taiwan) with the currency manipulator tag in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As Foreign Policy’s Joshua A. Keating reported, all three shaped up: they “made ’substantial reforms to their foreign exchange regimes’ after the negotiations, and were removed from the list after their ‘currencies appreciated and external trade balances declined significantly.’ However, the U.S. trade deficit with China…has increased every year since 1988. Evidently, the labeling in the early 1990s didn’t do the trick.”
  • It’s not clear whether China is still manipulating its currency. You manipulate currency to keep its exchange rate But from 2005 to 2013, China’s currency (the renminbi) rose 35 percent. No one really knows whether the renminbi is still undervalued. Even if it is, that’s not entirely bad: it allows U.S. consumers to buy Chinese goods at cheap prices, among other things.
  • Mitt Romney made the same promise in 2012. Trump may think himself forceful and leader-like by making this pledge, but he’s not original.

Based on all this, it seems Trump aims to provoke China—perhaps the world’s second-greatest military and economic power—over an issue that may have gone away some years ago.

Why did I do this research? Because it’s nearly impossible to dialogue, let alone collaborate on policymaking, without a common understanding of the facts. When we disagree on facts, we do well to dig deeper and sort them out. When we ignore facts entirely, we can move in directions that may be not only irrelevant, but catastrophic.

I’m going to try doing this with his other positions. Perhaps I’ll find that some of them are solid and thoughtful. I hope so. Based on Trump’s public record so far, I doubt it. But let’s see.

 

Guns, Changes of Mind, and the Cost of Dialogue

My opinion on government gun policy is starting to shift. That shift fills me with dread—and the reason, I think, may say a lot about why dialogue is such a hard sell.

Let’s start with my own biases. Temperamentally, I am as close to pacifist as you can get without actually being pacifist. Guns hold no appeal for me whatever (beyond the curiosity I have about pretty much everything). I grew up on Bambi. For most of my life, then, my thoughts on gun control were pretty much a default on the pro side.

But recent events have nudged me into more reflection. My experiments with gun dialogue (last month and in 2012) put me in contact with gun owners and their stories about why they value their guns, the enjoyment of pursuits associated with guns, the security they feel in owning a gun and knowing how to use it. Moreover, after pondering the Second Amendment, I can see how the standard gun owner’s interpretation may have some merit.

Bottom line: I can still support commonsense measures like background checks and waiting periods. But now, whenever cries to reduce gun ownership permeate the public square, I can’t quite join in—as much as my Bambi instinct still wants me to.

But this post is not about guns. It’s about why the shift scares me.

There are several reasons, but one towers above them all: some of the most important people in my social network—dear friends, immediate relatives, colleagues who might influence the course of my career—are vociferously anti-gun. I can think of a family member whose wisdom and love I would not do without…a colleague whose family has suffered several murders due to gun violence…a Catholic writer who shares many of my sensibilities but whose wrath grows with each mass shooting.

Will they abandon me now that I’m expressing a different opinion, even if just slightly different?

You might argue that it’s unlikely, and you’d probably be right. But in our current culture, friends and colleagues do part ways over disagreements like this. Consider the “harmonious” traditional family that fractures when a daughter comes out as gay, or good neighbors who find themselves on opposing sides when a casino comes to town. The notion that “if they abandon you over this, they weren’t real friends (or colleagues, or loved ones) anyway” is far too simplistic.

Now consider that I feel this dread strongly enough to hold my tongue around certain people—and I’m a dialogue person. How can I expect folks who are unfamiliar with dialogue to enter in when the risk is so high: when they might lose not only their basic convictions, but even their friends? How can those of us who care deeply about dialogue demonstrate that, in fact, the reward is worth the risk?

 

How Do You Come to Your Opinions?

Think of a controversial issue in the news. More likely than not, you’ve already formed opinions about it.

How did you come to those opinions?

The question keeps arising for me this month, thanks to conversations about the complex of issues surrounding violence, guns, terrorism, and Islam. Several of my “conversation partners” are people with whom I vehemently disagree; in a couple of cases their opinions are repugnant to me. If I had encountered their thoughts in passing—in a river of Facebook comments, in a tweet, in a casual remark—I might have dismissed them out of hand.

With one fellow in particular, however—an ardent anti-immigrationist who even questions the value of diversity for human community—the conversation has taken a different turn. The more he explains about his belief, the more I see how much thought he has put into it. He makes connections I never would have considered. (Who sees rigid controls on immigration as a justice issue for low-income people? He does.) He cites research. Some of his language implies that personal circumstances might fuel his ideas.

By instinct, I am a complete fruitcake on immigration. I think we should let ‘em all in. Everybody. Carte blanche. No exceptions. Or at least that should be our starting point. In that context, the conversation we’ve had has had a substantial effect. No, I am not persuaded to convert to this fellow’s opinions. But the dialogue with him has persuaded me that my conviction needs work. Perhaps a lot of work.

Seeing how he came to his opinions made the difference.

So what’s the takeaway here? Allow me to come at it in a roundabout way. It has to do, in a sense, with the power of stories.

The dialogue field is big on storytelling. When people tell their stories, we see their humanity. We can empathize with them. Storytelling takes dialogue away from the abstractions that dominate our media landscape and pushes it into context and nuance. We can start to see, in many cases, how a reasonable person might just arrive at the opinion that gives us the shivers.

What I’m wondering is whether how did you come to your opinions?—which is an invitation to tell another type of story—may also allow us to filter out the media noise.

Here’s what I mean. If I express an opinion that sounds ripped from the media headlines, and you ask how did you come to your opinion? it challenges me to probe deeper, to form and own an opinion that is more authentically mine. If I express an opinion with greater depth, your question how did you come to your opinion? encourages me to reveal that depth and (I hope) inspire you to reflect on it and respond in kind. If I’ve based my opinions on sources you find questionable, and you ask how did you come to your opinion? it allows us to go well beyond the issue at hand and into deeper questions of media and knowledge and trust.

Whatever the case, we begin to enter a dialogue and reflection that exposes our opinions to the thinking of our dialogue partner. That in turn can shape our opinions and, hopefully, bring them closer to the truth, or the heart of the matter. At the same time, we forge the type of connections that dialogue is famous for making.

Best of all, that simple question opens a door for us to leave those scripted catchphrases and simplistic media headlines far behind. We’re liberated from the “box” of those sound bites, which so often set the parameters of debate in the public square. Instead, the question moves us outside the box, and we van hear and think and feel for ourselves.

It might even be a good question for self-reflection. How do you come to your opinions? And how might this question help you make progress with that person who makes your blood boil?