Scene 1: A buddy forwards me an email that rails against U.S. foreign aid, because it’s taking away from Social Security. I’ve read enough to know that’s not true—foreign aid constitutes maybe 1% of the federal budget—and I send him a reply to that effect with three links from reputable (though allegedly liberal) sources. My buddy appreciates the input but still thinks there might be something to the email.
Scene 2: A pillar of a conservative church comes out to the congregation, one family at a time. When he lays out the case for LGBT acceptance—using the Bible and countering the oft-cited passages against homosexuality—people tend to believe him. Then he leaves, and they’re worried that his “silver tongue” has simply deceived them and distorted what they’ve always known as the truth.
What’s happening here?
My knee-jerk response is exasperation with the people who “won’t see sense.” They hear logical reasons to change their minds, they have access to facts and statistical trends and whatnot, and yet they retreat into their current mindsets. I want to use the word ignorance in its root sense: an ignoring of what’s in front of one’s face.
But that’s wrong on so many levels. Most important, it dismisses the sheer power of the deeper forces that move us: culture, upbringing, religion, values, the “tribes” in which we live, our mental health and emotional needs. All of these contribute to the dense mesh of our beliefs and opinions. All have spent decades weaving themselves into our psyches. They will not yield easily. Nor should they, necessarily: often these influences provide us with time-honored insight into the universe—and shape our lives for the better.
But the strength of these influences can keep us from hearing other people in dialogue, no matter how good our intentions. And since we have to share this planet, hearing one another in dialogue is essential.
This is why I believe that logic and facts and processes, while invaluable, will not suffice to create a climate of dialogue. At some level, we must find within ourselves an openness to others, a willingness to hear and weigh entirely different perspectives, a deep sense that the wisdom we’ve gleaned from the forces that move us may not always be correct.
These are attitudes of the heart. If we do not have them, we must find a way to reorient ourselves—to, as the Shakers sing, turn till “we come round right.”
Faith is good at this sort of thing. The goal of so many faith traditions is transformation at the core of one’s essence, usually toward compassion and peacemaking: the very virtues that both fuel and provide the reason for dialogue. When we start with the transformation, we can come to the dialogue table already open to the other; we can listen to the logic and facts and employ the processes more fruitfully—using our core principles not to block the entry of new ideas, but as a source of wisdom to contribute insights to the conversation.
Yes, we need facts and dialogue processes and ways of coming together, without question. The proper orientation of our hearts is no less important. With all these ingredients working together, who knows how far our dialogue can go?