I cherish the difficult questions that readers and listeners raise. Occasionally, though, a question goes from difficult to cringeworthy, and it takes me to places I don’t want to go.
A listener to my New Dimensions radio interview posed one of these queries:
What if the two different opinions [in a dialogue] are at such intense odds with each other that there can be no middle ground to achieve any sort of mutual progress? For instance if I were speaking to an individual who was a member of NAMBLA, there would be zero desire to understand his position more deeply. It’s wrong, whatever his position is…period.
I had never heard of NAMBLA, so I did an online search and found myself face-to-face with the North American Man-Boy Love Association. That’s when I cringed. YIKES. Talk about pushing the point.
Truth be told, I’m not ready for a dialogue on this topic. For one thing, a central practice related to this organization is illegal throughout the U.S. For another, the whole topic strikes a lot of raw nerves for me, including some from my faith tradition. My book includes a couple of chapters on when dialogue fails—or, perhaps better, when we fail at dialogue—and for me, this may be an example of failure.
So is the questioner right? Is zero dialogue on this topic the way to go here? Is zero dialogue with such a person the way to go? At all times, in all places, for all people? I’m still not sure. Here’s the gist of my response:
Yes, particularly from the vantage point of a worldview such as Christianity, some things are wrong. More broadly, there’s a general (if not universal) consensus about the evil of certain actions: murder comes to mind. With that baseline, I still see value in dialogue even with people whose practices and opinions are noxious to us, for a few reasons:
- We can disagree vehemently on one issue and yet agree—and even work together—on other issues. If our NAMBLA member had a wealth of knowledge on providing services to the homeless, and I was passionate about homeless issues, would it not be worth exploring whether we could collaborate despite our differences over NAMBLA?
- Dialogue allows us to understand what we oppose in greater depth—and thus oppose it more persuasively and more effectively. However, that leads us to the next point (and hear me correctly here):
- Truth isn’t always what we think it is. Remember when faithful Christians thought the holy words of Scripture approved the practice of slavery, or the subjugation of women? Now, I don’t ever want to come out of a dialogue with, say, Bashir Assad thinking that the use of chemical weapons is a good thing. But there are many other instances in which authentic dialogue, where we listen to the other person openheartedly, can move us closer to a greater understanding of the truth—whether or not that truth is what the other person is saying.
- We dialogue with other people because, no matter how noxious their opinions, we share at least one common bond with them: we are all human beings, worthy of being valued in our humanness as God’s creatures. Here the command of Jesus to “love [even] our enemies” is evident in all its implications—from the profound depth of its compassion to its equally profound capacity to make us squirm.
I can’t say that these points leave me in a comfortable space—not in this instance, anyway. But dialogue has never promised us comfort and ease. It does offer a way forward with our fellow human beings, however right, wrong, or otherwise they may be. It offers a way to practice the most fundamental imperative of nearly every wisdom tradition: compassion.