For the last two weeks, I’ve been scrambling to update my book proposal for a university press. (This is why I posted no blog entry last week.) The whole process—which involved a great deal of hard work with no guarantee of return—set me to reflecting on a disturbing question:
Why would 21st-century people want to engage in dialogue at all?
So much of contemporary life militates against dialogue, especially (and ironically) the advance of communications technology. Laptops, iPhones, and PDAs liberate us to conduct our business wherever we are—so the culture now expects us to conduct our business wherever we are. As a result, many of us move at a pace beyond frenetic.
That has its own problems. When moving so fast, we find it difficult to concentrate on anything for very long: I once heard that if you can’t communicate your message to today’s teens within three seconds, you’ve lost them. We need more convenience more than ever: even an extra click on a website is perceived as a hassle. Is it easy? Is it short? Does it provide return on my investment of time or money? Only if the answer is yes will it pass muster.
None of this has anything to do with dialogue.
By its nature, dialogue takes time—time to listen deeply to the other, to reason together, to reflect on the issue at hand. It requires undivided attention, so we can hear everything (verbal and nonverbal) that our dialogue partner has to say. As anyone who has taken part in dialogue will tell you, it is demanding work, usually for fuzzy objectives like mutual understanding or conflict resolution. That doesn’t even take into account the spiritual preparation that, I suggest, can help us dialogue more effectively.
So back to our question: why dialogue at all?
If we’re going to draw more people into dialogue, we need to provide an answer that resonates with them. I would like to tell people about the deep human connections that dialogue fosters, the larger perspective we gain by talking with others who disagree with us, the ability to work through conflicts with neighbors, coworkers, and friends. I would like to convey the importance of contributing to the welfare of the world through dialogue, and the breakthroughs that can result.
But this is eminently countercultural. It flies in the face of so much that preoccupies so many of us. Is it enough to draw them into dialogue? If not, what would?
What do you think?