A while back, an old friend upbraided me for imagining a dialogue on immigration. As she saw it, I was ruminating on an issue for which, in her words, I “had no dog in this hunt.”
At the time, I thought she made a good point, but now I’m not so sure. Do we need a personal stake in an issue to reflect on it openly? How much of a stake do we need?
First, to state the obvious: Those who have an intensely personal stake in an issue deserve a privileged place at the dialogue table. They live the issue, after all. The rest of us are under obligation to listen, and listen intently, to their stories. Sorting through Arizona’s immigration law without Arizonans at the table, for example, would be as arrogant as it is ridiculous.
But if we take that as the whole truth—“all those with no dog in this hunt, stay out”—we run into problems. Here’s an example: My daughter is an adult. I have no direct connection with the local school system anymore. Does that mean I should stay away from Board of Education budget meetings? What if my personal stake lies in the importance of educational excellence for the future of our (pick one: town/ nation/planet)? Is that really a personal stake?
Matters of war and peace are even stickier. The U.S. government pays little, if any, attention to the voices of those who would be combatants—let alone their families—when deciding whether to go to war. That is a travesty, and peace advocates rightly raise the issue in times of conflict. But what about the foreign policy expert, with no loved one eligible for combat, who can articulate the (possibly legitimate) geopolitical reasons for a particular war? OK, perhaps that’s self-evident. But what about the ordinary Joe whose religion proscribes the use of force in any situation? Should anyone care what he or his religion thinks?
Yes, I think they should. Wisdom can come from anywhere. We don’t know who carries the wisdom that a dialogue needs until we have that dialogue. If we apply “no dog in this hunt” rigidly—excluding those without a stake, or even including them but treating their views lightly—we risk missing the perspective that could make all the difference.
Logistically, of course, we can’t include everyone in every dialogue. And circumstances will define the number of people we can or should include in every situation. When the Public Conversations Project convened a long-running dialogue on abortion, it was important to keep the group small and the proceedings quiet; that provided a safe space for people to build trust and sort through the immensely complex passions around this topic.
For me, the lessons here are twofold. First, it is essential to honor those with a personal stake in an issue—and listen to them very, very carefully—while also inviting as many people as makes sense to the table. Second, it is valuable to reflect on the catchphrases we throw around every day: to evaluate their truth for this situation, in this context. By doing so, we force ourselves to think about the issue at hand more clearly. In thinking with clarity, we communicate that way too—and thus enhance our chances of connecting effectively in dialogue.
Does this make sense to you? Have you heard catchphrases that don’t quite stand up to scrutiny? Feel free to raise them here.