Here’s why the spirit of dialogue is essential.
I awoke this past Monday to the news that Osama bin Laden was dead. My initial reaction was complex: sadness because, in the great words of my faith tradition, God “desires not the death of a sinner”; concern that a critical mass of people would misinterpret this as a final victory over terrorism; a sense of the necessary tragedy of violence as a last resort, and my dismay that it is necessary at all.
At the same time, I experienced a profound disconnect with the jubilant crowds near the White House and Ground Zero. The chants of “USA” utterly mystified me. And I was afraid that I would be ostracized for not feeling the same way.
As the week wore on, I read and heard and reflected a great deal. A surprising number of voices expressed my feelings, and I no longer felt so alone. The president spoke of justice, and—while I listened in on discussions of due process and trial by jury and guilty until proven innocent—I came to see his point. The proclamations of victory quickly died down, to be replaced by conversations about next steps to thwart terrorism. Even now we are learning more about the extent of bin Laden’s involvement in terrorism worldwide. We’ve barely begun to discuss whether bin Laden, in a sect that honors martyrs, might be more powerful in death than in life. But I’m sure we will discuss it.
Here’s what I see in all this: Something happened in the world. We—the global we—filled the airwaves and the blogosphere with talk about it. Sentiments and opinions shifted. Some reactions subsided; others gained strength. New evidence came to light. It is almost as if we spent the week collectively figuring out what to think.
I’m not usually a big fan of the media’s constant opinion making. Every now and then, though, I think we get it right. This was one of those times.
What if we didn’t take the time to talk and listen and reflect: in other words, to engage the event in the spirit of dialogue? What if we just hunkered down with our thoughts and those who agreed with them? For one thing, we’d all be stuck in our own limited perspectives—much as we are on healthcare reform and deficit reduction and abortion. There would be no opportunity for our thinking to evolve, and it would become ossified, hardened against the “opposition.”
We’ve seen where that can lead in terms of policy: gridlock, culture wars, the rise of uncompromising positions, and, in the end, no progress on the issue at hand.
This week wasn’t like that. Perhaps the lesson here is to start listening and reflecting early—right from the start, actually—not allowing time for one’s position to harden. Perhaps the lesson is to treat different viewpoints not as threats or sins but as opportunities for curiosity. Maybe we learn that our first question in the face of disagreement should be not “How the hell can you think that?” but “Is there something in your opinion, however objectionable, that can teach me something?”
What if we did this on a collective level? How much better might our policy decisions be?
What do you think?