The government shutdown, which had most people wondering what has happened to American politics, has spurred laments over the lost art of dialogue. How have we reached the point that the people elected to govern the country cannot sit down and talk to each other?
In many ways, this situation reflects the wider situation in the country, where name-calling and self-righteous posturing have replaced debate. Many people are talking, and all too often parroting the same words that their comrades are copying and pasting all over cyberspace, but who is listening?
Sadly, however, the problem goes even deeper. More than just listening, people can dialogue only if they are open to being changed by what other participants say. This idea has stuck with me over the years since I read it in the work of David Tracy, who taught at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Tracy was particularly concerned with interreligious dialogue, and that enterprise is well worth considering. It has produced so little progress because there is probably no aspect of life where people are more resistant to change than religion. The very ground reality for their existence, here and now as well as in some anticipated ever-after, is at stake.
Instead of being interested in learning more about that reality, people close themselves off in a bubble of fear. They cling to a religious lifeline that they trust will pull them through, fearful that any doubt they are responsible for allowing into their life will drain the needed magical energy from them, or result in a God they conceive of as all-compassionate and merciful shunning them forever.
For sure people will take issue with that assessment and insist they are only defending the absolute truth against wily deceivers. I’m not about to argue with them, but I stand by my observation. And I’ll take the chance that neither a tyrannical deity nor a secret book of spells holds sway over our world, that if it came down to it, God would be pleased with whatever humanity as a whole came up with in a spirit of respect and love for each other and the natural world we are part of.
We do run the chance of ruining the world as we know it through wrong choices, but not by any limited choice, policy or law. Consistently ignoring evidence of a chain of wrong choices, as with the state of the environment, can lead to destruction. But even here, we have many chances to pick new directions and right wrongs, and even people who see the direst of futures know that the road to environmental sustainability will not be without missteps.
So let’s calm down a little. Do we need to balance the budget and get rid of the deficit? Of course we do. Do we need to fashion a society in which the needy are cared for and everyone has access to affordable health care? Of course we do. And it is the same with other high-profile issues gripping this country, such as gun control and abortion. The opposing sides have valid, deeply held points. Personally I would like to see very strong regulation of guns, because I would feel safer if less people had them. But I have listened openly to the other side and realized that many people are responsible gun owners and feel safer that way.
On any important issue we could listen to the other or both sides. This might actually be a step forward, but even the most intransigent ideologues do this. It is called debate, and often involves what I would call bad faith. What we need to do is dialogue — come to a conversation with our convictions but be open to modifying them, to acknowledge that people who think differently from us might have some point we need to take better account of.
Maybe we will end up holding the same position we brought to the discussion, but it will be because we allowed for the possibility of change but it just didn’t happen. And our partners in dialogue will know the difference if we genuinely were open to them. At least as likely, however, is that we will all come that much closer to something we can agree on. We might even reach an agreement we all can live with.