Do we have to give up our beliefs before we engage in dialogue?

I thought about this when a Religion News Service article led me to the Civility Project. Co-founded by a Democratic consultant and a Southern Baptist adviser to Mitt Romney (that combination alone should get your attention), the project sprang from a frustration with the shouting that currently passes for civil discourse. Central to the project is the Civility Pledge: a promise to be civil in public discourse and behavior, respect others regardless of their position, and stand against incivility.

What a great idea. Others have worked on civility for considerably longer and explored it more intently—P. M. Forni’s Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins is especially notable—but it’s wonderful to see a call for civility from the grass roots. The more, the better.

Two items on the Civility Project website, though, brought the belief question to mind. One page states that the project does not involve “a surrender of personal beliefs, convictions or ideology.” Meanwhile, a poster comments that civil dialogue is impossible until fundamentalists stop preventing civil marriages for GLBT people. This expresses her personal conviction, and she has made it a precondition for civil dialogue.

Can you actually be civil and not surrender these things?

I think you can—but not by leading with “never surrender.” That orientation almost automatically puts us on the defensive, listening to the other not so much to truly understand her but to find the holes in her thinking. If the other person realizes we’re doing this, she’ll perceive herself as vulnerable to attack. She too becomes defensive, we learn little about each other, and the dialogue has no value.

So how do we go about this? I think the key is not to surrender our beliefs, but to set them aside for purposes of the dialogue. In doing so, we clear our mind to consider the other’s perspective from the inside out. We can hear her logic, her passion, her values more clearly. As a result, we connect more deeply, build trust, and open up an opportunity for deeper dialogue. This gives us a richer understanding of the other perspective, which we can then explore from our own value system. 

Imagine if we tried this with, say, gay marriage. GLBT people might find that conservative Christians are not necessarily homophobic, but rather trying in good faith to see the issue from their biblical worldview. Conservative Christians might hear the life stories of gay people and realize that being gay is not a choice, but rather who they are at their very essence. 

At the end of the dialogue, conservatives might still conclude that homosexuality is sinful, and GLBT people might still be frustrated with them. But they have understood the opposing perspective more deeply. More important, they have seen the human being behind the perspective, and that can lead to something bigger than dialogue—compassion and peace across the ideological divide.