I spend a lot of time reading what you might call “virtual dialogue.” That includes comments to a blog post, discussion threads in an online forum, letters to the editor, and similar material. Lately, I’ve run into a lot of statements like this:
“You are absolutely entitled to your belief.”
“Everyone is free to believe what they want.”
“You’ve got your opinion, I’ve got mine.”
My first thought: of course. Why would anyone—at least in liberal Western democracies—think differently? But if it’s so obvious, why are so many people saying it so often?
I’m wondering if, in part, it’s a defense mechanism: a subtle way of cutting off an emerging dialogue or debate before it gets too uncomfortable. “I can’t see how you believe that, but you know what? This is a free country. You’re entitled to your opinion, and I’m entitled to mine.”
That example—essentially, “agreeing to disagree”—worries me. It always sounds so good: by agreeing to disagree, we pledge to respect each other’s opinions and move on. We restore harmony and concord. But all too often, “agreeing to disagree” turns into a tacit agreement never to speak of the issue again. That cuts us off, not only from dialogue that might help us better engage the issue (and the “other side”), but also from a part of the other person. It prevents us from growing in our perspectives.
Certainly there are times when cutting off discussion is the best move: to calm uncontrolled tempers, for instance, or to gather more information, or to take a break from sensory overload. But I think we tend to cut off way too soon. We avoid getting hurt, but we cheat ourselves out of growth too.
What would happen if we hung in there? We might discover entirely new ways to think about an issue. We might see that our perspective is one among many—no more, no less—and that continued dialogue might help us uncover more of the whole picture. We might connect with people we never thought we’d connect with. We might build our relationships, broaden our worldview, even increase our curiosity and thirst for wisdom.
Yes, we might also get hurt. People sometimes play rough out there. So all these benefits come with a cost. Can we afford it?
I think it’s easier to afford if we draw our essential strength from somewhere else. That’s why I believe spirituality holds so much potential for dialogue: as we proceed from a core of strength at the essence of our souls, our sacred cows—or, more specifically, our defense of them—becomes less important. That empowers us to be flexible, to give and take, to listen to the other with attention and vulnerability. We dialogue out of strength, so the hurt—painful though it might be—holds less power to destroy us.
So maybe we seek out that strength. Maybe we push ourselves one more click before resorting to “you’re entitled to your own opinion.” Maybe we get to taste more of the power of dialogue to enrich our lives.