Dear Reader, the last few weeks have been a blur—and a great deal of it had to do with getting the book on press. As of last week, Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart is off to the printers. We’re looking at a publication date sometime around mid-November (if you want to beat the holiday rush, feel free to pre-order now). The pre-press chaos has taken me away from this space, unfortunately, but things should be relatively steady now that I can’t change the book anymore. So, on to this week’s topic…
When the notorious video of Mitt Romney’s fundraiser first came out, it seemed like an interesting case study of how to think through a breaking news story in a dialogic fashion. Let’s follow the developments as they unfolded—in the news and in my brain—and consider what the results might say to us.
(One disclosure will help make sense of this case. After much paying of attention to the candidates, I plan to support Obama over Romney in the upcoming U.S. election. At bottom, I think both are good and honorable people; it just so happens that I tend to agree more with Obama’s way of thinking than Romney’s. My position matters here only because it aligns me with the 47%.)
I first heard of the candidate’s remarks in a news story. My gut reaction was to be personally insulted: I do not see myself as a victim, I have a strong sense of personal responsibility, etc. How dare he.
Quickly my dialogic self chimed in: You know how often these quotes are taken out of context—or even outright misrepresented by the other side. Do not make an assessment until you’ve seen the source.
So I looked at the source*—while also paying attention to any explanation Romney might make. Both, I figured, would provide context and nuance.
No such luck. As you know by now, he said what he said. The day after the news broke, Romney admitted that he spoke inelegantly, but he did not try to defend it.
So now I’m still insulted, but at least I have the full picture. End of story, right?
Not really. One valuable tool in the dialogue toolbox is to ask the unasked question. Often, after a few news cycles, the same questions and data keep showing up, and no new ground is covered. In this case, after a few days of reports on who does and does not pay income tax, what the political fallout would be, etc., one of these unasked questions came to mind:
Is it really ethical to bring a hidden camera into a private fundraiser?
I’d still be stewing over that, except that unasked question led quickly to another unasked question:
Why do we allow private fundraisers for presidential candidates anyway?
In general, I’m a big fan of preserving the privacy of people in the public eye. But as I see it, the point of U.S. presidential campaigns (and one good argument for how damned long they are) is to get us fully acquainted with the candidates—the way they think about the world, their stands on issues, their character flaws, all of it—so we can make a serious and informed decision. How can we do that when candidates are hiding key elements of their thinking, only to be trotted out for private fundraisers?
- Gut reaction: insulted and outraged.
- Dialogic reaction: insulted and outraged, but with a more complete understanding of the event, and added thinking on two deeper issues regarding the structure of our political process.
If we stay at the gut level, we get to carry around our outrage but have little to add to the general conversation (the outrage has received its fair share of attention already). If we delve deeper into the issue, asking questions of it in a dialogic way, we come up with more questions and insights that might make a difference, however small, in the general conversation. If enough of us explore and raise enough of these questions and insights, who knows what kind of change we might effect?*If I had completely followed my dialogic self’s advice, I would have watched the entire video. I have not had the time to do so, and perhaps that is a failing on my part. Here, I am relying on Romney’s reaction; if the full video had included anything to mitigate the effect of the 47% comments, he would have brought that up loud and clear.