A funny thing happened on the way to this post. It leads to a question and a sidebar that might change the question. (Got that?)
My original plan was to reflect on Cynthia Tucker’s column “Obama tried too hard to work with Republicans,” which appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her thesis is that “the president has made some of his biggest mistakes trying to woo a GOP opposition that has committed itself to frustrating him at every turn.”
This perspective on the last two years—which I share—leads to the question: how can we dialogue with those who refuse to dialogue?
This is not the same as holding a difficult dialogue, or dialoguing with difficult people. Several of my “dialogue partners” in years past have disagreed with almost everything I said. But despite their contentious words and occasional exasperation with me, they kept going. They saw the value in the dialogue itself.
No, I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about those who, like my perception of congressional Republicans and many in the Tea Party movement, prefer to fight the opposition at every turn rather than talk together.
I tend to think that, in a world with so many complex issues and so many people to address them, it’s more effective to sidestep the anti-dialoguers, at least for the time being, and seek out those willing to dialogue, whatever their point of view. My hope is that by doing so, we might eventually build a critical mass of people committed to dialogue—enough, maybe, to make dialogue the preferred method of addressing issues.
And now the sidebar (which maybe changes the question):
While preparing to write this post, I started reading the comments to Tucker’s column. Nearly all of them are angry, derisive, devoid of facts, and poorly spelled (yes, this matters to a writer). But they also reveal that the commenters are working from an entirely different narrative: that, far from seeking bipartisanship, the president shut out his opposition and “rammed his legislation down the throats” of the people.
It’s easy for me to simply attribute this reaction to the loose-cannon right-wing media: Beck, Hannity, et al. That could be true. But these commenters think I get all my ideas from the loose-cannon left-wing media. (I don’t.) And the assigning of blame doesn’t get us anywhere anyway.
So let’s refine our original question: what if the steadfast refusal to dialogue stems from something more fundamental—and maybe resolvable—in the issue at hand, like the sides’ working from two contradictory narratives? If instead of refusing to dialogue, we acknowledged the two narratives and explored their validity in more depth, might that change the dynamic? Could it soften the anger on both sides and allow them to talk further?
Maybe the larger question is, how far do we pursue dialogue in such difficult circumstances, and when do we decide it’s not worth the effort? How do we know when to fish or cut bait?