I heard the president’s address to Congress on health care and couldn’t stop thinking about dialogue.
Two ways of looking at the speech led me down this path. First, consider it as a model of civil discourse. Obama started by placing the current wrangling in a much larger context: presidents since Teddy Roosevelt had grappled with health care, and today’s government leaders have made more progress than at any time in history. Reframing an issue in this way can help listeners break out of their mental frameworks and examine things in a whole new light.
Then, one by one, Obama raised the principal proposals and considered where they might belong in the grand scheme of things. He readily gave credit where credit was due, even if it was due to George W. Bush. More important, it was clear that he had carefully weighed ideas from all sides—with the kind of open mind that dialogue requires—and tried to craft them into a coherent framework for further refinement.
The president also displayed a redoubled commitment to the shared pursuit of truth over rigid ideology—a key to any fruitful dialogue—when he finally addressed the “death panel” accusations head on. I believe the word lie, like the word evil, carries tremendous weight and should be used only when absolutely necessary. I also believe it was accurate here. The president chose his words carefully, which any good dialogist will do to foster understanding.
Now consider the speech from a different angle: as a glimpse of where dialogue can take us. Just by opening ourselves to the other—whose views are inevitably different from our own—we often come out of dialogue with a more nuanced view of the truth. Skeptics decry nuance and moderation of thought as the “muddled middle,” an attempt to forge consensus by forcing together ideas that don’t really fit.
Sometimes that’s a fair criticism, and a dialogue without depth of thought may lead us there. It’s far too soon to assess whether the new Obama plan represents that kind of force-fit.
Somehow, though, I doubt it. Health care is not only a complex problem, but a problem with myriad causes. It might just take a plan with myriad good ideas—from the left, the right, and everywhere else—to attack such a multicausal issue and finally set it right.
That brings us to the punch line: most of our social issues are multicausal. All of them carry some nuance. Solving them, therefore, requires ideas from all sides—or at least the careful consideration of those ideas. That only happens through authentic dialogue.
Obama’s speech reflected the spirit of dialogue and reconciliation. As a result, it might just be the first big step toward a lasting, workable health care plan.