#266 – Dick Bernard: Moving towards Rationality, Civility and Dialogue…or mired in Contempt?

I walked away from a TV commentary show a few hours ago. The host is someone I like and respect; his guests were four leaders from a few of the infinite number of different organizations that claim to be of like minds, but really have very narrow, poorly thought out, and often opposing agendas.
The talk was about whether or not Social Security and Medicare were “socialist”. Three of the four guests had anti-socialism as a key tenet of their anti-government rant. Of course, none would touch Social Security or Medicare, always going back to their tried and true ‘talking points’. It ended with the usual result, which I first saw in the old “Crossfire” days of the 1990s, where NO ONE was LISTENING to ANYONE ELSE, DEFENSIVE and TRYING TO SHOUT EACH OTHER DOWN. The good idea of debate ended up very badly. Personally, I learned nothing.
Life is far too short….
Right before that, Cathy and I had been to an Interfaith Forum on the topic of denominational beliefs on Life after Death. Five panelists, friends and clergy all, took on the topic. They were Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Lutheran and Congregational. It was a great pre-Halloween topic and it seemed there were about 200 of us in attendance. The Pastors talked, then there was opportunity for table talk, then then there was Q&A from audience to panelists. If I was to boil it down to its essence, it was respect personified. We all have our beliefs; we are sitting together seeking to understand; we were not throwing rocks at each other, as would have been the case in those vaunted “good old days” before tolerance was cool.
Two days earlier, nine of us had gathered at an office conference room in suburban Maplewood MN to watch a recent film about Haiti, and then to discuss what we’d seen.
The film, Poto Mitan, has five narrators. With a single, brief, exception, they are the only ones who speak, and they speak one at a time, telling their powerful stories. They are “Poto Mitans”, all poor women in Port-au-Prince who talk of survival against all odds. They speak in Kreyol, subtitled into English. The segments are separated by brief but beautiful and powerful prose read in English by Haitian author Edwidge Danticat, backgrounded by film of a woman braiding another woman’s hair.
Poto Mitan is a powerful film which our discussion leader, Jacqueline Regis, said brought her to tears when she first saw it. It was so mindful of her own mother and her own growing up years in Duvalier’s Haiti.
After the film we viewers dialogued with each other about what this film meant to us. There was nothing profound said, but the evening was profound. There was lots of respect among we diverse folks whose only commonality was an interest in Haiti. Our conversation reached no conclusion: it didn’t need to. When we walked out the door, the conversation was our conclusion: food for thought. Out of the gathering did come a proposal to a larger institution to use the film as centerpiece for a program on the first anniversary of the January 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti, but that was just a proposal for someone else to implement, or not.
Oh if only we could re-learn the almost disappeared skill of dialogue.
So…What is “dialogue”?
I often go back to a great quote I found in Joseph Jaworsky’s 1996 book, “Synchronicity, the Inner Path of Leadership“. Preceding the chapter on “Dialogue: The Power of Collective Thinking“, Jaworsky includes the following from David Bohms “On Dialogue”:
From time to time, (the) tribe (gathered) in a circle.
They just talked and talked and talked apparently to no purpose. They made no decisions. There was no leader. And everybody could participate.
There may have been wise men or wise women who were listened to a bit more – the older ones – but everybody could talk.
The meeting went on, until it finally seemed to stop for no reason at all and the group dispersed. Yet after that, everybody seemed to know what to do, because they understood each other so well. Then they could get together in smaller groups and do something or decide things.