Contemporary exchanges, on- and offline, often claim to be encouraging dialogue. Especially analyses of race, gender, sex, pop culture, identity, nationality, religion and so on. Yet, while many indeed claim to encourage dialogue in theory, in practice few have understood the point of it at all. Dialogue has become a platitude. Whether it’s feminism, Afropolitanism, racism, religion, migration, multiculturalism, hashtag activism, globalisation, you name it, there is an aimless – at best – and at worst, a dangerously aggressive energy which marks communication today.
In the vein of inviting conscientious thought around whether there can be a congruence between understanding dialogue and encouraging dialogue—to the extent such an aim actually prevails—here are some thoughts on the matter.
First of all, dialogue is not synonymous with collectivist narcissism. That is to say, dialogue is not group think nor is it ideological; a point of view about a fact is not a truth. Dialogue is not another form of cultural critique. Dialogue is not aggressive posturing; being rude and inattentive, waiting for chance to impose your views on others, or, reinforce unoriginal observations in some tribal ‘community’. Dialogue is not a tweet that reduces a complex issue into a soundbite. Dialogue is not corrupting another person’s point of view in order to make your own Kaiseristic ideology valid. Dialogue is not ‘academic intervention’. In fact, dialogue is not a theoretical exercise at all. There may be room for these things but they are called something else—debate, discussion, argument—NOT dialogue.
What is dialogue then?
Above all, dialogue involves uncertainty. It is an investigation of something you do not know with one or more persons who also do/es not know. Dialogue is therefore a risk: rather than pounding yourself on the chest because you are so intensely extraordinary, or, wanting to pound someone else on the head because they are so agonisingly ordinary, dialogue rarely goes according to plan. Dialogue is three D’s; Delicate, Difficult and Desirable. If you are lucky, dialogue will turn some fix idea you have on its head and you will be wiser for it. Dialogue is not anti-anything, good people. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, it is a good thing to believe strongly in two contradictory ideas, it makes you question the shit around you. (That was a paraphrase, by the way.) Put simply, dialogue makes you see the world differently.
It follows, then, that the question to ask, that is if the aim is indeed to encourage dialogue; is—Are you willing to see the world differently or would you in fact rather see it as you always have, your way or the highway?
Moreover, dialogue is art. If you want to be good at dialogue, you have to train at it extremely carefully. Just like you can’t paint like Wangechi Mutu simply because you got a paint brush, nor do you know how to dialogue simply because you can talk. It seems to me that the best way to learn the art of dialogue is to become an expert at listening. By expert, I mean hearing even the whispers around you. Solutions are often uttered very softly. So much of the pain that humanity is grappling with has to do with our inability to listen; to hear what really, truly is being said.
There is a Finnish proverb that goes, ‘One word is all it takes to make a lot of trouble’ meaning by all means talk, but talk carefully. Similarly, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, Saraswati (whose yantra is the picture I used for this post), embodies the art of dialogue by encouraging us to seek knowledge artfully. And, one of the most beautiful spaces for dialogue, the literary salon, was created by French women in the 17th century who sought to intimately discuss the relationship between private and public life.
I am wondering if evoking the effortful ambience of a literary salon, or the divine energy of Saraswati, or the curious nature of the human mind, could help craft a contemporary approach to dialogue. Why? Well, to enhance a more beautiful, intelligent world.
I for one long to keep learning to dialogue. That is where my mind is at. It’s not easy. But I’m *listening* more than talking nowadays.
So, in the spirit of dialogue, pick a hot button issue in your mind and consider; is there a difference between dialoguing and debating said issue and is it important to cultivate both? If you share thoughts, I’ll be delighted!
For more on dialogue, I recommend Bohm Dialogue, Socratic Dialogue, Pedagogy of the Oppressed and *listen* to Lauryn Hill’s ‘Oh, Jerusalem’. Peace.
Madam Troublemaker says
Minna, what you describe here – this dialogue – is what I hope to start with every blog post or Facebook post I make as Madam Troublemaker. I frame my questions to be provocative, of course but usually that is based on my desire to cut through the fluff and get to what I believe is the heart of the issue. What I have found (with people from my country in particular and the African continent in general) is often a marked inability to think beyond one dimension. Whatever religious, political or social filters that the person brings with them stays firmly in place and the intellectual, provocative dialogue I was hoping for quickly devolves into name calling sessions fraught with straw man tactics, false equivalencies, non sequiturs, plain foolishness, breathtaking disingenuity often accompanied by the “Everyone has a right to their opinion” refrain. It’s unbelievably frustrating. I recently posted the following to my Facebook page: “Everyone is entitled to an informed opinion, preferably backed by fact, reason and logic and not just emotion.” and I have pretty much outlawed dissenting opinions of certain topics (Homosexuality for example) which are not anything beyond nastiness and ignorance. Ignorance I can tolerate. Arrogance I can ignore or laugh at. Ignorance and arrogance (and us Africans, when it comes to certain topics)have an abundance of that combination, I cannot deal with.
Thank you for the comment, and for the dialogue about dialogue! As I mentioned on Facebook your words echo my thoughts. Particularly, “Everyone is entitled to an informed opinion, preferably backed by fact, reason and logic and not just emotion.” How very true. We are suffering from ‘one-dimensionalese’. And people think the medicine for it is ideology. I am so tired and bored with this kind of follow follow mentality. It would be good to ask what is the ideology behind the ideology. Why does it lead to all this nastiness and shouting. Why is there so much pain in conversation today. It seems to me that indeed some humility and complexity to topics, and above all the realisation that nobody knows for sure what is best or desirable in most instances. We have to learn to toss the question like a ping pong back and forth and hope that we catch an answer while it’s in the air.
I’m so glad you are blogging again and what a provocative and brilliant return to the fold. Dialogue is a premise that I’ve struggled with for many years. My toes were aching (I felt them being trampled at times and rightfully so) as I read this article for there are many inherent truths stated especially as one reconciles the differences between dialogue, discussion, debate and information sharing. Your definition of what a dialogue is and should be is a refresher course for some of us and a learning experience for others. Facts are relevant at times, however, sometimes the truth gets lost or submerged especially when our hubris rears its behind and as you cited lends to ‘aggressive posturing; being rude and inattentive’. The road to resolving this affliction is as you stated “Listening” and I might add ‘active’ listening for I’ve navigated between both over the years and have allowed my emotions based on experiences to override this wonderful skill which as you also stated requires honing for it is an expertise!
F. Scott Fitzgerald may have had a point about believing “strongly in two contradictory ideas, it makes you question the shit around you”. It has made me question the ambivalence of that point of view and at times supported what I would hear from the generation that preceded me that “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything” as if the latter doesn’t prove your point. It also reeks of being wishy-washy ^◡^ . I also think that ‘strongly’ gives me pause especially when the consequences of one of the opposing ideas can be deadly.
BTW: I wanted to republish this as a Post on my blog and as a link to this article for I believe it is timely and one that should be shared with as many folks as possible. I wasn’t sure of your policy on doing so. There are some bloggers that will allow it as long as they are given credit and not plagiarized. Therefore, I’ve selected this as website of the week on my sidebar. I do believe Minna that I’ve put you in the spotlight on several occasions. As a member of the baby boomer generation and at times a leftist ideologue; I love to keep up with what young intellectuals are thinking and doing and hopefully I will learn and grow as a result of doing so. I’m actively listening!! ^◡^
Thank you, Carolyn. For the honour of website of the week (again, yay): and also for the thoughtful comment. I am finding that the beauty about active listening and learning to dialogue is that one’s personal, inner dialogue too grows and you cease shouting and being rude to yourself too.
Furthermore, thank you the rich dialogue you and I have enjoyed over the years. I cherish our diasporic cross-border, cross-generational exchanges and your support, listening and critical questioning is valuable. I am listening too, big sister.