Why Dialogue in Politics?

May 31, 2017

 “We live in terror because dialogue is no longer possible, because man has surrendered entirely to history, because he can no longer find that part of himself, every bit as real as history, that sees beauty in the world and in human faces.   We live in a world of abstractions, bureaucracies and machines, absolute ideas, and crude messianism.  We suffocate among people who think they are right in their machines as well as their ideas.   For those who can live only with dialogue, only with the friendship of men, this silence means the end of the world.”

Albert Camus

“If the future of mankind is not to be jeopardized by conflicting spheres of civilization and culture, we have no alternative but to shift the ray of our attention from that which separates us to that which unites us.  Mine is a vision of a United Nations consisting not – as happens so frequently today – of divided nations but of united people, belonging to a world in jeopardy which can be saved only by uniting all human forces.” 

Vaclav Havel

The most difficult issues we face in life, whether as couples, families, organizations, societies, nation-states, or human beings, cannot be resolved by individuals acting alone, by elites acting autocratically, or by factions acting in their own distinct and exclusive self-interest.  They can only be resolved by coming together across our differences, listening and talking to each other, exploring our disagreements, working collaboratively, reaching consensus, deciding what to do democratically, resolving our differences, and acting jointly in the interest of the whole. 

Yet working collaboratively with those who are different, those we dislike, those with whom we disagree, even those whose actions we find repellent, requires higher order listening, dialogue, negotiation, and conflict resolution skills, each of which requires more time and greater effort than acting alone.  It can be exhausting, irksome, messy and galling to listen openly and honestly engage opinions and interests that diverge sharply from our own.  As a result, most often we act unilaterally, ignoring the needs and desires of those who do not agree with us. 

But when we act individually or unilaterally and in our own exclusive self-interest in matters that directly and significantly impact others, often without including or even informing them, they feel disrespected, as we would, and are more inclined to resist, undermine our solutions, and respond in ways that trigger costly chronic conflicts.  Indeed, our history as a species is replete with examples of problems made far worse by refusals to listen, rejections of communication, dismissals of dialogue, isolations from participation, constrictions of collaboration, and exclusions from decision-making, 

If we could somehow add up all the costs we have incurred as a result, including the chronic conflicts triggered by these failures of communication and collaboration, the results would be staggering, and vastly outweigh the increased time, effort, expense and skills that were needed to overcome the obstacles to acting together.  The most important of these skills center around communication, dialogue and group problem solving, which require higher order proficiencies in empathetic listening, emotional intelligence, dialogue facilitation, teamwork, problem solving, consensus building, constructive feedback, collaborative negotiation, prejudice reduction and conflict resolution. 

Why We Need Dialogue

We need dialogue because without it we drift apart, our differences become untenable, our fears grow palpable, and our distrust circles without end.  We need it because the smallest human unit is not one, but two; because it is how learning happens in all relationships; because it invites us to open our hearts to each other and to ourselves; because it resets our priorities and reveals the beauty and symmetry of our differences; because we need each other, and die a little inside without it; because, in it’s absence, we are expelled over and over from the Eden of our capacity to love each other; because when it fails, it is far easier to turn each other’s lives into a living hell. 

Relationships of all kinds rely on repeated efforts to communicate, because by doing so we are able to unite around our agreements, and also around our differences, which permit us to solve deeper and more complex problems by inviting us to imagine a wider set of potential solutions.  So we can imagine our diverse nations, political factions, values and beliefs, cultures, religions, races, genders, and other social formations as scaled-up relationships that are similar in many ways to marriages and families

We can ask: what would happen predictably in your marriage or family if you stopped engaging in dialogue or discussing your differences?  Clearly, the outcomes would be disastrous for your relationship, independent of the nature of your differences, as we all know because, from time to time, we experience conflicts in which communication temporarily stops -- and the same consequences arise in all relationships on all scales. 

The difficulty, then, is not whether to engage in dialogue over political issues, but how to do so, especially where the issues are complex and contentious; and where the pain, loss, grief, guilt, shame and suffering each side has experienced have not been recognized, acknowledged or rectified by the other side, usually because it has issues that have also not been recognized, acknowledged or rectified. 

How then do recognition, acknowledgement and rectification begin, when both sides feel unheard?  Not through more or sterner refusals to communicate, or through violence and punishment, which only add to problems and make relationships worse, just as they do in couples and families, but through open, honest, empathetic dialogue. 

How to Think and Talk about Politics

In thinking about how to discuss political differences, the essayist Isaiah Berlin offers a useful way forward by proposing that we regard political communications and ideas as “inherently un-philosophical,” in the sense that they are based on values over which people naturally disagree because they are based on dissimilar interests, orientations and experiences, and therefore on entirely different sets of facts.  

Political communications should therefore be regarded as factually diverse, unscientific, unfalsifiable, and philosophically inexact, leading to an acceptance of different, co-existing, “alternative” truths, each representing unique personal and group experiences, all of which can be regarded as valid from the narrow point of view of the person or group that experience it — in other words, it is possible to view political statements not as adversarial, win/lose, true or false propositions (which is how they are generally presented), but rather as distorted indicators of experience and perception, personal stories of pain and injustice, declarations of disagreement or desire, appeals for solidarity and support, requests for improvement, and hopes for the future, none of which are necessarily mutually exclusive, in that they do not require other truths to be false in order to be true themselves .

This is the essence of interest-based approaches to conflict resolution, which routinely reframe positions as interests, accusations as requests, and criticisms as invitations into dialogue, and improved communication, connection and relationship.  Most interestingly, from a conflict resolution perspective, Berlin asked, “In what kind of world is political philosophy — the kind of discussion and argument in which it consists — in principle possible?” He answered, “Only in a world where ends collide.”  In other words, where there is an adversarial, win/lose process for deciding which truth will be implemented going forward. 

We can therefore define political conflict as consisting of three essential elements:

1.              Diversity:  In the first place, there must be two or more distinct individuals or groups of people, each with diverse beliefs, ideas, opinions, needs, and interests.  Without this, there cannot be conflict. 

2.              Inequality:  In the second place, there must be an inequality in power between these individuals or groups, reflecting their ability to implement their diverse beliefs, ideas, opinions, etc.  Without this, the conflict will not take a political form.  

3.              Adversarial, win/lose process:  In the third place, there must be an adversarial, win/lose process for problem solving or decision-making that pits diverse individuals and groups against each other, allowing only one to win.  Without this, the conflict will not become polarizing or chronic.  

In this way, we can see that political speech is conflict speech, and that the question “What should be done?” is inherently unanswerable as a complete, solitary and exclusive solution, as Berlin explains,

Not because it is beyond our powers to find the answer, but because the question is not one of fact at all, the solution lies not in discovering something which is what it is, whether it is discovered or not — a proposition or formula, an objective good, a principle, a system of values objective or subjective, a relationship between a mind and something non-mental — but resides in action: something which cannot be found, only invented — an act of will or faith or creation obedient to no pre-existing rules or laws or facts.

From this proposition, Berlin concluded that no political argument powerful enough to convince large numbers of people can be entirely wrong. Thus, every powerful political idea represents, and continues to represent, some important piece of political truth, based on some genuine socially and historically bounded experience, even if it is presented in a distorted, adversarial way.  Berlin was not referring, of course, to factual truths, which can often be determined scientifically, but to emotional and personal truths that have been transformed into political statements, visions of the future, and objective proscriptions. In an insightful passage, Berlin wrote:

The social contract is a model which to this day helps to explain something of what it is that men feel to be wrong when a politician pronounces an entire class of the population … to be outside the community — not entitled to the benefits conferred by the State or its laws.  So too, Lenin’s image of the factory which needs no supervision by coercive policemen after the State has withered away; Maistre’s image of the executioner and his victims as the corner-stone of all authority; Locke’s analogy of government with trusteeship; … all these illuminate some types of social experience.

Political philosophies are therefore not solitary, scientifically provable or exclusive, but compound, poetic, metaphoric truths of the human desire for freedom from tyranny, domination and oppression.  What is then important in analyzing political argumentation in dialogue is that we probe beneath the formal, factual arguments and rationalizations people offer for their positions, and elucidate the deeper metaphors and analogies, interests and emotions, stories and experiences, even syntax and grammar that gave rise to them.  

To do so, as in all conflict resolution efforts, we need to surrender the idea that there is a single political truth, which is ours, and recognize instead that every political argument is an effort to establish the truth and validity, value and importance, of someone’s special subjective social or political experience. This implies that politics, despite its linguistic assumptions and orientation to power or rights, need not be a zero-sum game in which one side is right and all others are wrong, but an effort to acknowledge, investigate and integrate multiple, diverse, contradictory truths, in the course of formulating a common policy and direction over a protracted period of time in which interests are various and consequences are unclear.

This is precisely what conflict resolution at its core represents: a way of resolving disputes based on diverse interests using respectful communication, consensus building, power-balancing, dialogue, option generating, joint problem-solving, prioritizing and similar techniques in which no single person or group is allowed to dominate.  

Mediation and other interest-based processes thus possess a hidden political aspect that is inherently democratic, egalitarian and collaborative because it allows a variety of interests and truths to contend and seek synergistic combination.  It defeats prejudice and hatred not with opposing prejudices and hatreds, but by reframing insults as fears or requests, or efforts to unite with someby excluding others; in other words, by combining, integrating and synthesizing them, and searching beneath their hostile veneer for the hidden, unsatisfied, heartfelt experiences and interests that both fuel them and allow them to be combined in new, synergistically creative ways.

As physicist David Bohm wrote, dialogue is not just a simple back and forth between two monologues, but the principle way that new, creative, holistic ideas emerge.  It is therefore not only useful in social problem solving, but the basis for political collaboration and a new and higher form of human intelligence:

What is needed is a dialogue in the real sense of the word …, which means ‘flowing through,’ amongst people, rather than an exchange like a game of ping-pong…  The basic idea of … dialogue is to be able to talk while suspending your opinions, holding them in front of you, while neither suppressing them nor insisting upon them.  Not trying to convince, but simply to understand.  The first thing is that we must perceive all the meanings of everybody together, without having to make any decisions or saying who’s right and who’s wrong.  It is more important that we all see the same thing.  That will create a new frame of mind in which there is a common consciousness.  It is a kind of implicate order, where each one enfolds the whole consciousness.  With the common consciousness we then have something new – a new kind of intelligence. 

Dialogue is therefore a condition for the complete realization of democracy in groups ranging in size from families to nation-states.  It is also a methodology for participation and a process for building collaboration and reaching consensus in solving complex problems.  Perhaps more importantly, it is a form of group or “swarm” intelligence that turns differences to advantage by allowing them to combine and emerge as higher order solutions that leverage the wisdom that resides not in any one of the parts, but in the whole. 

We therefore need to think, not only about why, but how to design, organize and conduct dialogues over difficult and dangerous political, economic and social issues.  Each issue, group and circumstance is different, so it will be necessary to re-design the process collaboratively each time in order to match the groups and individuals who are likely to participate with the issues that are important to them in a way that is sensitive to the whole, as well as to small shifts, and therefore unfolds different each time. 

Most importantly, it is important to think deeply about how to design the process that leave room for complexity and ambiguity, so that when the dialogue takes an unexpected turn, or heads into dangerous territory, or produces responses we did not anticipate, we will be able to move with what is happening in the conversation and help shape it so that it satisfies the deep desire we all have for connection, participation, collaboration and community.  As the Dalai Lama reminds us:

Non-violence means dialogue, using our language, the human language. Dialogue means compromise; respecting each other’s rights; in the spirit of reconciliation there is a real solution to conflict and disagreement. There is no hundred percent winner, no hundred percent loser—not that way but half-and-half. That is the practical way, the only way. 

More profoundly, it is dialogue that allows non-violence to work, that links and binds us, that knits us into a single cloth, that strengthens couples, families and cultures; it is dialogue that invites us to understand and open our hearts to each other; it is dialogue that expands and sustains our capacity for love and connection.  This, above all, is why we need dialogue.