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Posts Tagged ‘immigration’

Who Gets to Come to the Dialogue?

A while back, an old friend upbraided me for imagining a dialogue on immigration. As she saw it, I was ruminating on an issue for which, in her words, I “had no dog in this hunt.”

At the time, I thought she made a good point, but now I’m not so sure. Do we need a personal stake in an issue to reflect on it openly? How much of a stake do we need?

First, to state the obvious: Those who have an intensely personal stake in an issue deserve a privileged place at the dialogue table. They live the issue, after all. The rest of us are under obligation to listen, and listen intently, to their stories. Sorting through Arizona’s immigration law without Arizonans at the table, for example, would be as arrogant as it is ridiculous.

But if we take that as the whole truth—“all those with no dog in this hunt, stay out”—we run into problems. Here’s an example: My daughter is an adult. I have no direct connection with the local school system anymore. Does that mean I should stay away from Board of Education budget meetings? What if my personal stake lies in the importance of educational excellence for the future of our (pick one: town/ nation/planet)? Is that really a personal stake?

Matters of war and peace are even stickier. The U.S. government pays little, if any, attention to the voices of those who would be combatants—let alone their families—when deciding whether to go to war. That is a travesty, and peace advocates rightly raise the issue in times of conflict. But what about the foreign policy expert, with no loved one eligible for combat, who can articulate the (possibly legitimate) geopolitical reasons for a particular war? OK, perhaps that’s self-evident. But what about the ordinary Joe whose religion proscribes the use of force in any situation? Should anyone care what he or his religion thinks?

Yes, I think they should. Wisdom can come from anywhere. We don’t know who carries the wisdom that a dialogue needs until we have that dialogue. If we apply “no dog in this hunt” rigidly—excluding those without a stake, or even including them but treating their views lightly—we risk missing the perspective that could make all the difference.

Logistically, of course, we can’t include everyone in every dialogue. And circumstances will define the number of people we can or should include in every situation. When the Public Conversations Project convened a long-running dialogue on abortion, it was important to keep the group small and the proceedings quiet; that provided a safe space for people to build trust and sort through the immensely complex passions around this topic.

For me, the lessons here are twofold. First, it is essential to honor those with a personal stake in an issue—and listen to them very, very carefully—while also inviting as many people as makes sense to the table. Second, it is valuable to reflect on the catchphrases we throw around every day: to evaluate their truth for this situation, in this context. By doing so, we force ourselves to think about the issue at hand more clearly. In thinking with clarity, we communicate that way too—and thus enhance our chances of connecting effectively in dialogue.

Does this make sense to you? Have you heard catchphrases that don’t quite stand up to scrutiny? Feel free to raise them here.

Dialogue, Truth, and Its More Obnoxious Fans

Uncle Sam wants YOU

to learn English

—bumper sticker

I saw this bumper sticker while driving up the interstate yesterday, and after the automatic cringe, it got me thinking about a much larger question than the wrangle over English speaking.

To get to that question, however, let’s probe the bumper sticker a bit more. It seems self-evident that learning the language of the country where you live carries many advantages. If I moved to France (please, O Lord), I could get a job, buy stamps, and find a good dentist way more easily by knowing and speaking French. On a broader level, I could contribute more of myself to my new community—through volunteering, writing, promoting political candidates, etc.—by knowing and speaking French.

So in the United States, learning English enables you to transact your business and make a difference in ways that not learning English can’t. Because of this, you might even say that Uncle Sam would be delighted if non-English-speakers learned English, so they can bring their whole selves to the public square.

None of that changes the fact that the bumper sticker is aggressive and cringeworthy. So here comes the larger question:

How on earth can we hear truth—even a grain of it—in an opinion expressed so offensively?

In an ideal world, of course, the people who express opinions this way would become more civil in their speech and their inner lives. In our imperfect world, there’s a strong temptation to simply ignore these folks. And to ignore any hint of what they express.

Maybe that’s the right thing to do. But here’s why it might not be.

I remember a cartoon in which one fellow at a bar said to another, “All I know is, if you’re against pollution, it can’t be all bad.” See the problem? As we dismiss someone we find obnoxious, we also dismiss his perspective—lock, stock, and barrel—and wind up in a place where we don’t want to be.

Examples? Here’s one to start us off: I’m very worried about the growth of the national debt. Have been since long before it became the cause célèbre of the right wing. But I find it very hard to express that opinion when the more rabid wing of the Tea Party has shouted it—and various distortions of it—from the housetops. I feel almost squeezed into the position of “If you’re against the national debt, it can’t be all bad.”

I’ll bet you can think of a hundred other examples. Go for it. Write about them in the Comments section below.

Dialogue Unbound

Last week, I had the privilege of sitting next to author Ben Cheever during lunch at the Marymount Manhattan writer’s conference.* When I mentioned that I was writing about civil, compassionate dialogue, he recalled Rodney King’s famous line: “Can’t we all just get along?”

Given this golden opportunity to explain myself, I instantly responded with a lame throwaway line. (Ben, please accept my apologies.) So, in the Department of Damn, I Wish I’d Said This, I wish I’d said this:

Dialogue has nothing to do with “just getting along.”

Don’t misunderstand me here. Getting along, living and letting live, and agreeing to disagree—when understood properly—are all worthy of pursuit. I believe dialogue can move us toward those high ideals.

But the process itself can be pretty bumptious. People are passionate about their convictions. The anger that pervades today’s society often drives them to defend those convictions in kind. So if we approach them with anything that strays from their perspective, we may well catch some flak. 

A good friend of mine recently took offense at my post on immigration. In a lengthy email, she described the harmony and mutual goodwill in her multiethnic California neighborhood. She highlighted the absurdity of Anglocentrism in a region where Hispanic culture came first. She took umbrage at what she saw as stereotypes of Mexicans.

As it turns out, I totally agree with her. But she also lit into me for using language that, in her opinion, just inflamed the situation further.

I’m glad she cared enough to invest herself in a lengthy reply (not to mention the days of research she conducted to formulate her thoughts). I may not agree with her assessment of my post, but that’s not the point here. The point here is that it’s easy to stereotype dialogue as the domain of people who just want to make nice, and, well, it just doesn’t work that way.

Because of my family history and emotional makeup, I have compelling reasons to want to make nice. I’m sure my passion for dialogue springs from that. But for me at least, it can’t end there, because (as I’m now finding) reaching across the divide means jumping into the fray—not on “our side” or “their side,” but as one trying to stop the shouting and start the talking.

Have you ever caught flak while trying to start an honest dialogue? How did you deal with it? Did it convince you never to enter the fray again, or did you find a way through? I’d love to know. Please use the Comments function below and share your experience.

*One benefit of this blog for you, dear reader, is that you don’t have to endure endless name dropping. The reason is simple: I don’t name-drop because I don’t know any names. If I ever come to know any names, I will name-drop only when necessary to make the point or wake up the search engines. Promise.

Speaking to Each Other on Immigration

A relative of mine who lives in Texas was venting about Mexican-Americans. We had been writing back and forth about immigration reform, and she expressed frustration particularly over issues of language and national identity.

At one point it dawned on me to ask, “How many Mexicans do you know personally?”

My point is not to single out my relative. I haven’t befriended any Tea Partiers, and they make my blood boil in the same way. No, this simply came to mind with the enactment of the immigration law in Arizona and the firestorm surrounding it. The point here is to ask a question:

Who is talking in the Southwest? More important, who’s listening?

What would they find out? If they talked with my relative, Latinos would hear why Texans’ ardent patriotism—perhaps a product of their unique history—makes it hard to swallow Mexican-Americans’ self-identifying as Mexican (and not American). They might hear about the Anglos who can’t find work in the Southwest because they don’t speak Spanish.

On the other side, Anglos might hear how extraordinarily difficult it is to learn English, how the economic hardship that brought many Mexicans here plagues them still, how humiliating it is to be stopped for DWL (driving while Latino).

These are guesses. I live in the Northeast, so I don’t see the struggles of these folks every day. What I have seen, in my own life, is how my preconceptions of a group melt away when I come face to face with a member of that group. My friendship with Frank changed my thinking about gay people. My friendship with Jane cleared away misconceptions about born-again Christians.

I ran a cursory Google search to find out who’s talking in the Southwest, but it came up empty. What have you heard? Are you aware of dialogue between Anglos and Latinos in Arizona, Texas, California, New Mexico? What kind of progress are they making? Click on Comments beneath this post and let us know.

A Stranger in France and a Path to Dialogue

A week in France over Christmas set me to thinking about one of America’s white-hot issues—and how we might deepen the dialogue around it.

While traveling through Normandy and Brittany, we encountered few people who were comfortable with English. I speak enough French to get by, so it became my job to order at the deli, buy stamps from the post office, talk to the cellphone people, etc. I adore the language, so this was a labor of love. But it took extraordinary amounts of mental energy to think through my sentences, understand the other person, and respond in kind. 

By the time my head hit the pillow, I was dead exhausted. And that led me to think about immigration.

Imagine you’re a U.S. immigrant whose first language is Spanish. Every day, you expend all that mental energy to navigate a strange language and culture. On top of that, you have to hold down a job, talk with your kids’ teachers, figure out the banking system, etc., etc. You may want to speak English, but learning a language takes years.

All this leads me to three thoughts. First, there’s clearly more to the immigration issue than “if you live here, you have to speak the language.” Whatever the validity of this position, it raises more questions than it answers. Since mastering English is both complex and time-consuming, can the U.S. take steps to accelerate the process among immigrants? How much accommodation should Americans make to other languages? Should government be involved in this? Should business?

All of this can lead to a rich dialogue, bridge building, and perhaps even a direction for policy. But it requires us to eschew bromides like “just speak English” as the beginning and end of the discussion.

Second, my place in this grand debate reminds me of the need for humility and sensitivity. I have my own (ridiculously liberal) opinions about immigration policy, but then I don’t live in a high-immigration region. It’s essential, then, that I honor the opinions of both Anglos and Latinos in the U.S. Southwest—because they live this issue. No matter how much I think that absolutes of social justice are on my side, I cannot be a party to this dialogue unless I commit to hearing others out.

Third is the surpassing value of travel in broadening our perspectives.  When we delve into another culture entirely, we quickly discover an incredible diversity of viewpoints. What seems self-evident to white Anglo Americans might be completely foreign to a South African matriarch, or an aboriginal hunter, or a young hotelier in Normandy. We cannot help but begin to see our personal worldview as one among many. This reorients us to approach others not only with openness, but with empathy.

In my case, I can hold all kinds of theoretical opinions about immigration and language issues. But traveling to France gave me a glimpse of what it really feels like to be a stranger in a strange land. It left me, quite naturally, with more openness, more empathy. And that was just for a week: imagine how much a year in Poland, say, or mission work in the Philippines might have changed me.   

Given the long, angry history of our national immigration debate—which has lasted well over a century—this openness and empathy might be just the thing to move us from debate to dialogue.