When dialogue doesn’t work

I was approached for conversation last weekend by a politically engaged couple who described themselves as committed to open minded political dialogue. My response has left me wondering.

He sounded well read, informed, angry, and opinionated; she seemed quieter, articulate, sad, and inquiring. Both seemed a bit lonely, like they were living their lives as outsiders in a hostile political society. I thought I sensed strongly held opinions even though neither of them initially expressed them. While they spoke in non-partisan language, I felt braced throughout the conversation for an expected flood of intense conservative critique. I kept my comments and opinions centered on my personal experiences, not wanting to start a debate over facts and sources. This, despite her having begun our conversation by saying she thought the avenue to better political dialogue might be to start with agreement on trustworthy sources.

In retrospect I wondered if my reluctance to wade into partisan issues was fear of not having a sufficient repertoire of facts to compete, or was simply conflict avoidance. But as I played out the likely exchanges in my mind, I concluded all would be blind alleys, that there would be no transformations and no agreement beyond agreeing to disagree.

The impediments to productive political dialogue are many and growing while aids seem to be few and shrinking. Manipulated group think and identity politics are huge obstacles. So are the hundreds of known cognitive biases that unconsciously drive our beliefs and choices, including dialogue’s archenemy: confirmation bias. Some researchers say that from the ancient Greeks on what Western intellectuals claim is a rational search for truth is in fact the pursuit of evidence to persuade. In the later years of our work with Beyond Civility, Bea Larsen and I refined our program goals to “opening minds” rather than trying to change them, a seemingly subtle but nonetheless profound difference calling for uniquely different methods. The maddening fact seems to be that the harder we try to persuade someone, especially with facts, the more tightly they hold to their original beliefs.

The inter-personal dialogue terrain is also fraught with emotional landmines. Partisan catastrophizing is exacerbating distrust and fears of existential threats on both sides. People on the Left and Right view each other as members of groups whose aggressive actions call for equal and opposite reactions, keeping our fight-or-flight defenses at DEFCON 2. For people attending to politics, including me, the path ahead looks closer every day to an inevitable fight to the finish, politically if not physically; a struggle to win decisively enough to make the rules that will protect us from the other.

I assumed my conservative conversation partners would be arguing from sources they trust and I don’t, and that tracking down “truth” would be intolerably painful, if not impossible. With the probability of resolution so low, why would I or anyone else subject ourselves to the extreme discomforts of an emotionally charged argument with people whose opinions we think we already understand and will never agree with?  

Conflict paralysis is not new, of course, but our traditional workarounds are less availing than in the past. Third party interventions and agreement on processes can help. Court decisions, for example, and mediated settlement conferences that involve neutral parties with authority to enforce a fair decision-making process can help clarify issues and overcome impasses. Similarly, processes of democratic governance, including public debates and voting, as well as shared respect for religious and social institutions, once offered such leavening forums. But these are no longer widely accepted or trusted; most conservatives don’t trust government and many liberals don’t trust religion. Even the courts are increasingly suspected of political bias.

So, will Americans ever talk with each other again? Can we take back the power democracy offers us to design together our national destiny?

Honest answers would have to include maybe not. Forces beyond our individual control are fomenting social and political division, making us as a nation weaker and vulnerable. Maybe we are in an irreversible downward spiral propelled by greed, fear, and manipulative social media. It might be that too many of us have given up on the hard work of inclusive democracy and shared policy making, that we will support only what we want for ourselves and see no point in sharing with others or searching for common ideals. The shocking percentage of Americans leaning toward right wing authoritarianism—recently reported by Insider as twice that of Western democracies like Canada and Australia—does not bode well for the future of dialogue or for democracy.

On the other hand, many are still trying, and most people are still caring for others, even if their tribes are too narrowly (in my opinion) defined. The couple I spoke with must have been as uncomfortable as I, but they stayed with it, knowing I was not of their political stripe. And the fact that I am still thinking about that conversation could be instructive. Maybe connection and insight does not require facts or agreements. Maybe engaging with sincerity, listening, without expectation or need for agreement, is enough to hold a society together. Maybe these alone can create enough fertile ground for compassion and empathy to grow into the social capital we so badly need. I hope so. I also suspect that for those who would continue to invest in our challenged American experiment, any formula for success will have to include three components: persistence—unyielding advocacy for shared agency and responsibility in an all-inclusive democracy; humility—recognition that no matter how certain we are, we could be wrong; and caring—seeing everyone, regardless of their politics, as fellow human beings worthy of dignity and love.

One thought on “When dialogue doesn’t work”

  1. I am reading this , agree, feel the same and also think: I should not share this post that with my kids. What a world to grow up in: “So, will Americans ever talk with each other again? Honest answers would have to include maybe not.”. when I see Lelia these days , she seems to be focusing on the last part of your article. “ Maybe connection and insight does not require facts or agreements. Maybe engaging with sincerity, listening, without expectation or need for agreement, is enough to hold a society together. ”. So far ,that’s how she interacts with her friends who have a wild range of political opinions. Nonetheless she has strong opinions and enjoys debating with those who do not agree with her.

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