The news from WikiLeaks has me thinking about the value of privacy—and how it can make or break certain dialogues.
Here’s what I mean. Dialogue, almost by definition, requires a certain amount of mess. As we “think together,” we will toss out half-formed thoughts and imprecise language in an effort to build something together, whether that “something” is a new bond across bitter divides or a new approach to a difficult issue.
The process can be wildly circuitous. My first half-baked idea may have no value in itself yet spark something good in your mind. We might pursue a long line of thinking only to find it’s a dead end, only to find that a single glimmer of a shard of an idea from that pursuit gets us exactly where we need to go. We could pile good idea on good idea and find they build into a great idea—but not the one we would have imagined.
Clearly this process takes time and focused thought. It also takes a safe place where people feel free to toss out these embryonic idea shards without fear of judgment.
It takes privacy. It takes confidentiality.
If one of those shards gets broadcast—exposing the speaker to possible ridicule and hostility—the whole dialogue may be threatened.
One of the most eye-opening leaks from WikiLeaks concerns the backchannel conversation among Chinese and U.S. diplomats over North Korea. Judging from media portrayals of Chinese leaders—not to mention the tension in U.S.-China relations—I find it remarkable that they have spoken so openly with their American counterparts about so substantial a change in their thinking. Clearly, the two sides are making space for new ideas toward a different approach.
But with diplomatic flare-ups in that part of the world often just one careless remark away, the only way to talk about the issue was in strict confidentiality. The leak may well have damaged the effort.
Similarly, when the Public Conversations Project convened a groundbreaking dialogue between pro-choice and pro-life leaders, several of the participants expressed a need for confidentiality to avoid the potential reactions from, among others, their own constituencies. Privacy was essential if the dialogue was to flourish.
Time. Focused thought. Privacy. American culture doesn’t exactly promote any of these necessities for dialogue. So in our own attempts at dialogue, we must be intentional in carving out space for these necessities, as appropriate for the situation, to reach across divides and fulfill our goals.