Posts Tagged ‘Facebook’

Why I’ve Hit the Pause Button on Dialogue

Not so long ago, most of my writing was devoted to dialogue. Dialogue and Donald Trump. Dialogue and the debate over guns. Dialogue and why my website isn’t called Dialogue Venture anymore. A whole book about dialogue.

All of which makes my current approach to dialogue so curious—and maybe fruitful. For the past year or so, I’ve hit the pause button on dialogue and everything related to it.

This pause has gone through many iterations. Right now it’s in something like a steady state. I’m avoiding political conversations with friends and relatives. I have myself on social media brownout, following my beloved hobbies but little else. I’ve found an inner emotional “set point” for news intake: I keep abreast of current events up to that point and no further.

The reasons for the pause may sound familiar. The shock following the U.S. presidential election last fall. Repeated attempts—and mostly failures—to find dialogue partners on the other side of any issue. The viciousness in too many social media messages. The damage to my mental health that all of this wreaks.

Strangely, several things dialogic are occurring even within the pause.

For one thing, I am trying to listen selectively—for depth and the ring of truth and the “story behind the story.” So my attention is drawn to God, to my deepest self, to the few media I trust to articulate the world to me. I am shunning noise, like the sensationalism and repetition that characterize much of today’s news (and social) media. I find myself reading books more than tweets. I am writing less and reflecting more.

The medium of all this, where it takes place, is solitude and silence: large stretches of time and space to let the news turn over in my soul. This is a distinctly contemplative approach to dialogue—the way nuns and monks, sages, Zen masters, and their counterparts might practice it. Solitude, silence, prayer, meditation, listening, and then acting in the world are what we do.

Must everyone do it this way? Not at all. After the election last November, a great deal was said and written about the need to stay engaged: to redouble our outreach to the “other side,” to confront the president’s excesses at every turn, to oppose injustice. We need people to do that. Conditions could get very bad very fast without that kind of presence in the public square.

But such activity is not the only response. The pause is no less important. It fosters the depth and perspective that can transform activity into something more soulful. It raises larger, deeper questions than we can get to otherwise. It serves as a corrective against shortsighted or impulsive reactions that inflame and do little else.

We all bring different gifts and character traits to whatever issue comes before us. Why would we assume that only one set of those can generate the “proper” response?

So my colleagues in dialogue may engage and mobilize. I pause—perhaps for weeks, perhaps for years. I cannot imagine I’m the only one. We need both. More than that, we need every offering of every individual gift to see our species through such dark and difficult times.

Care Like a Citizen, Think Like a Journalist (Part 1)

Political lies used to imply that there was a truth…. Evidence, consistency and scholarship had political power. Today a growing number of politicians and pundits simply no longer care. They are content with what Stephen Colbert, an American comedian, calls “truthiness”: ideas which “feel right” or “should be true.”   

—“The Post-Truth World: Yes, I’d Lie to You,” The Economist, September 10, 2016, p. 18 (emphasis mine)


My social medium of choice, Facebook, has been a disturbing place of late—even more than usual. A particular meme formula is appearing more frequently as we get closer to the U.S. presidential election. It goes like this:

  • Photo of something outrageous (especially if it casts the candidate you don’t like in a negative light)
  • Headline so outlandish it’s guaranteed to get attention
  • Name of the source

People share these things in a blink. They’re so juicy that you can barely resist clicking through. If you stop to read the source line, though, you might detect a fly in the ointment: it usually reads something like (and these examples are made up) or Many of these sources excel in making up news, distorting it to their own ends, or at least disseminating stories without any regard for their truth value.

In the post-truth culture described by The Economist, where we don’t care about the facts, that makes perfect sense. But it presents a massive problem: there is no way—no way whatever—that we can run a society on that basis.

So we need to care like citizens and think like journalists.

The caring-like-citizens part is fairly straightforward. We realize that without a consensus on the facts behind an issue—or at least the orientation to care about the facts—we cannot begin to dialogue about the wicked societal problems that are far too big for one person, or one interest group, to overcome. Caring about an issue and the truth associated with it, then, becomes an act of good citizenship.

Now, thinking like journalists. Good journalists take nothing for granted. They check and double-check their sources—on everything. As the old saw goes, “If your mother says she loves you, verify it.”

Time was when good journalists, and the reputable media that employed them, were plentiful enough to ferret out truth from nonsense for us in many cases. That’s not as true anymore, thanks to budget cuts, failing newspapers, etc. So now we have to be our own journalists, or at least our own fact checkers.

How? There are at least three ways we can do it, and I’ll describe them in the next post. For now I’ll leave you with one thought: when I say “we need to care like citizens and think like journalists,” I mean everyone. Me. You. Your neighbor down the street. We need all hands on deck to work through our thorniest problems, which means that collectively we must put the post-truth trend behind us. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Last Weekend’s Gun Dialogue

Several days after our latest experiment in gun dialogue, I find myself both more hopeful and less hopeful. Fortunately, more hopeful is winning.

Last week I posed a few basic ideas that, just maybe, every person on every side of the gun debate could agree on. If we could agree, we’d have some common ground, which often inspires at least the tolerance—and sometimes the empathy—required to explore thornier issues.

The ensuing dialogue (mostly on my Facebook feed) was robust, rarely on topic, and wildly fruitful. Here are some things that I heard, thought, was surprised by, etc.:

People listened to each other. There was some “Yes I hear you but [more of my position here]” going on—which doesn’t qualify as listening—but many folks at least tried to take in the views from commenters on the other side.

The resulting exchanges were enlightening. At one point, two folks debated the definition of militia (a key word in the Second Amendment) and what relevance it might have for today’s United States. I honestly had never considered that issue in any depth.

At another point, a gun owner objected to last week’s attempts at legislation (defeated in the Senate) to inhibit sales of guns to people on government terrorist watch lists. Her objection was that the criteria for inclusion on these watch lists is not transparent. Another commenter, who favored the legislation, suggested adding a paragraph to make the criteria transparent. If these two folks could figure out a solution across their very significant divides, why couldn’t the Senate?

There is a deep, widespread sense of fear among many people in the U.S. Millions of Americans believe that their government wants to confiscate their guns. Millions of Americans are now afraid of Muslims. It is very tempting, for those of us who gravitate toward the center or left of the political spectrum, to dismiss these leanings out of hand. I suggest we sit with them a while, listen to them more intently, see how we might address them.

This is not—not—to condone xenophobia. In the midst of the Facebook dialogue, I actually had to delete a post that advocated “banning Muslims” instead of “banning guns.” I will not have my Facebook feed associated with hatred.

But maybe there’s a distinction between fear and hatred that’s worth examining. I wonder if we can make space for people to explore and express their fears, groundless or not, while confronting the all-too-easy transition from fear to hostility to hatred. I wonder if that space might actually prevent the transition from occurring.

The problem of mass violence is much, much deeper than I’d thought. The more I read on this issue, the more I wonder whether any serious approach to reducing the number of mass shootings has to involve rethinking our society on a profound level. Maybe we have to, for instance, look at our very American propensity to violence. Maybe we have to consider how our long history of individualism has eroded the very community that might deter prospective shooters. Perhaps we have to ask why so many people feel so deeply alienated. And while I hate to sound grim, I don’t think U.S. society—or any society—is up to the task. Still…

Maybe we can take steps anyway. God bless my friends: when I expressed my despair in the above paragraph, they were quick to remind me of some very basic truths. We can’t change society, but we can change ourselves. Love is the answer. (Sound simplistic? If you’ve ever tried to live it, you know it’s not.) Maybe our task now is to imagine the baby steps we can take toward a more peaceful world.

This was, of course, one conversation on one blog/Facebook feed at one point in time. But if our little agglomeration of people can have this conversation, why not others? Why not people with the power to take the baby steps, and larger ones too? Why not?

Dialogue and My Facebook Detox

I’m in the fourth day of Facebook detox.

If you read this space regularly, you’ll know that Facebook has inspired a good many dialogues (and articles) for me. Some of my favorite colleagues I know only through Facebook. It’s become one of the world’s great gathering places, so it would be silly for me not to be there and learn what I can.

And yet it’s just too easy to slip away for a moment, take a quick break from work, disrupt whatever I’m doing to check Facebook. It’s easy to respond to x conversation, add a quick comment on y page, maybe post an update or a question of my own, watch that video (it’s only two minutes)….

Before I know it, my concentration’s shot. I don’t know what or how much I’ve accomplished. Each day ends with a vague sense of waste. So I’m off (or nearly off) Facebook, at least for a few days.

This seems to be the way life goes, for many of us at least. We engage, we retreat. We make our mark in the public square, we withdraw to reflect and recharge.

It’s hardly a new idea. Early Christian thinkers spilled a lot of ink reflecting on “the active life” vs. “the contemplative life” and opining which was better. In modern times the general conversation speaks of introversion and extroversion.

For me, the best is a blend of both—or, rather, a flow between the two. I’ve spent much of my life in a more contemplative place. Now, with the book and the articles and the conferences and whatnot, my life has taken an active turn, without leaving the contemplative behind.

This flow, I think, is essential for us as people of dialogue. Individual dialogues are demanding work. They require intense periods of listening, deep reflection, compassion for the other, and great care with language, among other things. We can’t sustain these wonderful efforts forever. We have to process, give our souls a break, let our preconceptions and the input from the dialogue play together.

How do you know when the flow is shifting? This is where I think listening comes in: listening to one’s own heart, to one’s exhaustion levels, to the tenor of the conversation at that moment, to the situation, to the other. If we develop an ear for these things, we can let the shift happen when it comes, respect its timing, and go with it.

Oh, it helps to listen to loved ones too. With the Facebook business, I ignored the shift for quite a while. Fortunately, one passing comment from my wife woke me up to face what was happening.

I’m sure I will be on Facebook again at some point. If I listen to my heart with enough honesty, I’ll even know when that point is. One can only hope.

Have you ever done a Facebook detox? Did it help? How? Feel free to share.

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 and a Deeper Listening

Listening reminds me of a pool: just when you think you’ve plumbed its depths, you find more depths to plumb. Two recent encounters with listening brought this home for me.

First, some context. Dialogue only happens when we listen. Listening is not the same as hearing: we might hear any sonic input at any time—ignoring it, giving it fleeting attention, or focusing on it as we see fit—but we listen with a clear mind, an open heart, and our total attention devoted to the other person. That allows us entry, unfiltered, into the other’s way of thinking.

One treasure of contemplative spirituality is that listening becomes a way of approaching all of life—a habit of the heart, if you will. We listen to God, to the flora and fauna of the natural world, to the prevailing culture, to hidden messages, to everything that communicates. Every now and then, this listening stance produces some extraordinary discoveries, such as…

Listening from within another’s point of view. This, to me, is one step beyond listening open-heartedly to another’s perspective; it involves climbing into that perspective and thinking from inside it, the better to grasp its nuances and shake free more wisdom. When asking my Facebook friends about their experiences with Holy Week, I specifically addressed my query to Christians, figuring that people who did not identify as Christian would neither know nor care about the topic. That assumption nearly cut me off from the insights of one of my atheist friends, who showed a remarkable ability to think from within the Christian tradition and meld it into his own thinking. The Public Conversations Project published my article about this experience; feel free to take a look for the details.

Listening to our thoughts before we think them. Late last month, I had the pleasure of interviewing with Justine Willis Toms for a future installment of New Dimensions Radio. (The program is slated to run sometime this summer.) During the interview, in which we quickly established a deep listening connection with each other, she asked me a question about the nature of God, and I responded with my latest thinking. What stunned me, though, were the ideas coming out of my mouth that I hadn’t thought of before. I do not know where these ideas came from, but I had the eye-opening experience of learning from them. The beauty of listening as a habit of the heart is that we are listening to everything, even to ourselves as new insights emerge from us.

Have you had experiences like this—the word magical or miraculous may apply—when listening deeply to another person? Feel free to share them here.

The Boston Bombers and Preconceived Ideas

Amid the news reports from Boston last week, a few outlying comments and impressions stood out for me. They didn’t sound like the themes that became dominant as the story unfolded: the evil of terrorism, the fear that it incites, the awe-inspiring heroism of everyday people, the “we are all Boston” solidarity with those who suffer.

A lot has been said and written about those themes, and they deserve the attention. But I don’t want to miss the wisdom in the outliers. Here are some thoughts on one of them:

There is still much we don’t know about the Tsarnaev brothers. But what struck me in these early days was the stubborn refusal of their narrative to fit our usual categories. They committed an act of terrorism but were not Saudi nationals. Their birthplace has spawned terrorism in the past, but they had not lived there for many years. They were fairly well integrated into U.S. society, but their motivations did not match those of other American terrorists, like Timothy McVeigh. They are Muslims, visited jihadist websites, but do not appear connected to al-Qaeda.

As their story unfolds, we might see how they fit into some larger narrative. For now, however, it reminds me of what I do not want to do. I do not want to try stuffing a unique story with unique characters into a prepackaged narrative—like “they’re from Chechnya, so they must be al-Qaeda” or “they practice Islam, so of course they’re violent” or “they’re white, so it must be domestic terrorism.”

This is a crucial lesson for dialogue as well. Our partner in dialogue makes a statement, and it’s tempting to put her in a category. If we hear her out, we might discover that she fits none of our categories, so our categories need an adjustment, if not an overhaul. In the process of adjusting or overhauling them, we get closer to grasping the reality—and the complexity—of the person before us and the issue she raises.

If we don’t hear her out, though, we cut ourselves off from all that. Our categories may even harden, so we are less prepared for the next dialogue.

I was on the receiving end of this dynamic the other day. On Facebook, a friend posted a message that I thought depicted Islam inaccurately. When I raised this, someone else jumped in to ask whether I was apologizing for terrorism. His prepackaged story was clear—Islam = terrorism—a belief he made all too clear with his subsequent comments. If he had lived into the uncertainty, the knowledge that he needed more data to truly understand me, he might have uncovered a much more complex picture of who I am. He might have had to change his thinking: not just about me, but about what I wrote.

Have you had this happen to you? Conversely, have you run across a person or situation that shook up your preconceived notions? What happened? Feel free to share here.

A Hobbyist’s Model for Framing Dialogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dialogue When the Sparks Fly

Bad moods and Facebook are generally a lousy mix. We’ve all heard warnings about that. In most cases, I can back away from the keyboard long enough to calm down.

Sunday was different. As you might expect, it left me with some lessons for dialogue.

The dustup started when a Facebook friend—someone who consistently posts intelligent comments—called my hobby “boring.” I instantly turned into a little ball of indignation, and I let her have it. No cussing, mind you, no personal remarks, but a lot of capital letters and exclamation points.

As soon as I hit Send, I felt queasy about it. Expressions of anger do not come easily to me, and I always feel the need to apologize immediately afterward. This time, though, I felt I had a point, so rather than a mea culpa, I sent another, calmer comment explaining myself.

About 15 minutes later, a third person raised the notion that I may have misinterpreted the original comment. My Facebook friend wasn’t calling my hobby boring; she was relaying a popular perception about my hobby.

Whoops. OK, now an apology makes sense.

So, what does this have to do with dialogue? Three things come to mind:

  1. Our raw nerves can surprise us. Yes, I love my hobby, but I had no clue it was a hot button until someone hit it. In the same way, we may set off an angry reaction from someone else when we least expect it. The lesson here for all participants, I think, is to stop, breathe, observe the reaction, and either try to discover the source or set the reaction aside for reflection later. That can help us continue the dialogue by short-circuiting any cycle of hostility that may emerge.
  2. Not every communication is crystal clear. Obviously. We’ve all been cautioned to choose our words carefully when emailing or posting to social media, because people can’t hear tone of voice, or read body language, or even pick up proper context in electronic media. Even when we think we’re crystal clear—and I’m sure my friend thought she was—there’s always the chance of misunderstanding. Being awake to that chance enables us to hold our words lightly and respond thoughtfulness when someone misconstrues our thinking.
  3. Dialogue isn’t always “nice.” Some people see dialogue as a way to dodge conflict, or avoid having convictions, or be otherwise mushy of thinking. Nonsense. In dialogue, we can express ourselves forcefully; we can channel our anger into our words. It is a powerful way to communicate to our dialogue partners that “I care deeply about this.” The trick is to frame our vehemence so our partners understand the context and intensity level from which we’re speaking. A simple introductory statement, such as “Pardon me, I may get emotional about this,” prepares the other people involved and allows them to respond from a place of understanding rather than knee-jerk hostility. Precision of language is essential here. So is the ability, on the receiving end, to stop, breathe, and hear the message behind the anger, rather than respond in kind.

What about you? What other lessons would you have drawn from this conflict? What have you learned from your own dustups with people? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Glorious Internet: Closer to Dialogue or Further Away?

Remember all those long-ago TV ads that trumpeted the vast promise of the Internet to bring us all together? Apparently, quite the opposite is taking place.

So says a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed by Gregory Rodriguez. A senior fellow at the New America Foundation, Rodriguez writes that “despite all the newfangled ways we’ve developed to communicate across all sorts of boundaries, we’re increasingly deciding to talk, tweet and Facebook with folks who are more or less like ourselves.”

Why? Rodriguez quotes a fascinating insight from Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. With the explosion of diversity in today’s world, Bishop writes, people increasingly have to create their own identities. That’s a lot easier when you draw on support from people like you.

I see this as a good thing. In Western culture, at least, we no longer have a social consensus to tell us who we are (or aren’t). Thank God for that, especially since the consensus defined “normal” in very restrictive ways. But as someone with his own eccentric identity, I have seen how isolating the resultant “who am I?” quest can be. Support from like-minded people is a breath of fresh air, and the Internet has made it easier to find them.

The problem is not that we hang out with like-minded people. The problem comes when we only hang out with like-minded people (or only read their like-minded thinking).

By doing that, we drastically limit the number of worldviews we encounter. Our views can easily become more rigid and dogmatic. We might think the answers to problems are simple when they’re not. Moreover, we start to believe things about people not of our worldview—and those things are often inaccurate.

That may be why, for instance, some LGBT people see all evangelical Christians as homophobic, or why some Anglos see all Mexicans as unpatriotic, or why some Americans fear all Muslims as potential terrorists.  And it makes dialogue difficult.

But what if we expanded the spectrum of places we hang out online? It can do wonders for clearing away preconceptions. As our exploration unfolds, we may realize that “all people in x group” don’t have the same perspective, because this blogger in x group has a different perspective. More often than not, we discover that her perspective is well thought out. Maybe we can find ways to at least respect those opinions, if not actually bridge our divides.

Rodriguez quotes former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the value of spending time with “them” and their perspectives. To help reach consensus as an Arizona legislator, she’d invite the warring sides over to her house for home-cooked Mexican food and beer. They’d sit around and shoot the bull. In time, they became friends. This can happen virtually too (OK, minus the edibles).

Will this kind of crossover solve all our problems? Of course not. Differences in opinion and debates over policy will never go away, and neither should they: they can contribute to the forging of better solutions. But we can’t even begin to solve our problems if we’re not talking. And we can’t talk productively unless we see and hear others, especially our “adversaries,” for who they really are. If that means reading as well as, or The Wall Street Journal as well as The New York Times, then that’s what we have to do.