The Need for Dialogue Is Now

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Written by Stacey L. Connaughton and Jessica Berns

In a July article for this publication, we discussed the ideological divide facing our country. We described lessons learned by the Purdue Peace Project and other international organizations that engage with citizen groups around the world to encourage good governance, inclusive leadership, and peace. One of those lessons was the value of sustained dialogue between individuals with differing viewpoints. Six months later, post-Inauguration in the United States, we need dialogue more than ever despite how intimidating, exasperating, or pointless we may expect those conversations to be.  Experience shows that dialogue between individuals who hold different, often polarizing views, is a productive way to (re)build social cohesion and identify points of collaboration and agreement.

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election results, with one candidate winning the popular vote and the other winning the electoral college and assuming the presidency, demonstrated the extent to which large segments of the population feel excluded and marginalized. In voting to “Make America Great Again” these voters rejected the Washington ‘elite’, the policies and implications of our globalized world, and identity politics. Voters aligned with candidate Trump’s campaign promises to ‘drain the swamp’, bring jobs back to the U.S., and to keep America safe. Trump’s campaign incorporated rhetoric of anger, hate, sexism, and bias. Now, concern for our national security and regaining lost jobs has led to Executive Orders and plans for travel bans disproportionately affecting Muslims. The current context also reveals emerging divides between decision-making at the city-level and that at the state-level. There is further conflict expected between cities and states.  As legislatures in some conservative states are emboldened by the President’s expected policies and those of a Republican Congress, cities in those states, more Democratic leaning, seek ways to resist.

Let’s be clear: the despair and frustration articulated post-Inauguration by a sizeable percentage (Trump has record high disapproval ratings) of the U.S. population is not simply a reaction to a transition from one party in the White House to another. This is not ’sour grapes’ about one’s candidate losing the Electoral College. This is not a new administration sorting out the kinks of policy making. No, as Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote: “The Trump administration is not a Republican administration; it is an ethnic nationalist administration. Trump insulted both parties equally in his Inaugural Address…It’s becoming increasingly clear that the aroma of bigotry infuses the whole operation.”

Those that disagree with President Trump’s executive orders are organizing, protesting, and taking action. Here is a small selection of national-level examples:

  • The January 21 Women’s Marches across the country (and world);
  • 200,000 consumers removing the Uber app from their phones to protest Uber picking up passengers at JFK airport during a taxi strike opposing the Executive Order on immigration; and,
  • Widespread, grassroots financial support for organizations like Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union.

That we assemble, speak out, organize, act, and build social movements without fear of retribution is a strength of our democracy and a legitimate way to create social change. Investing in political parties and working to elect candidates that we believe in is another way to create social change. Whether working from the ground up to build movements or supporting political parties, dialogue is a common denominator among different change processes. Purposely seeking out those who disagree with us, listening, and engaging in sustained, sometimes extremely tense conversation, is vital to bridge-building and restoring a broken social fabric.

Although dialogue between nation states (diplomacy) and between public servants and constituents (town halls, open forums) are vital, here we focus on the need for dialogue between and among individuals. Dialogue is a communication process that privileges genuine listening and understanding others’ viewpoints over dictating what they must believe or do. It involves jointly examining the assumptions that each of us holds and understanding why they operate as they do, with the goal of moving forward together.

A 2007 dialogue handbook created by the United Nations and other international organizations emphasizes that both the political and the personal are key to successful dialogue: “Understanding both the underlying political issues (the deep-seated grievances) and the human relationships that often blur and distort the picture (but that may also, when allowed to emerge, carry unsuspected positive energies) is crucial to creating the ‘dialogic situation’ that catalyses progress and allows the gap to be bridged.” In our current U.S. context that means, for instance, understanding how employment opportunities in a particular area of the country have diminished as a result of jobs moving overseas, and at the same time appreciating that real people and families have been impacted by that change.

Dialogue will be most effective, and its outcomes most durable, if it’s inclusive. Sometimes people just need to be invited to participate in meaningful conversation, particularly if they have spent years feeling ignored.  Dialogue can help us understand each other, identify common ground, and then collectively work on paths forward to break impasses, be them policy impasses, or cultural or interpersonal ones. Dialogue, as a process, addresses sentiments of exclusion.  That process, and the connections that result, can lead to tangible changes that are amenable to those on both sides of an issue.

As practitioners who have spent many years working alongside partners in emerging democracies, post-war democracies, and faltering democracies, we know that what the U.S. is experiencing right now many of our colleagues and partners have experienced over decades. And worse.  We (and groups like American Friends Service Committee, Beyond Conflict, Public Conversations Project, and Search for Common Ground collaborate with groups in Afghanistan, Guatemala, and Liberia) appreciate that each context is unique. But we also know that learning from those who hold different views is key to reconciliation and violence prevention.

Here are a few examples of how widely dialogue is used and its potential for impact:

  • Over the last 100 years, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has worked for peace and justice for people in the United States and beyond. They played important roles in the U.S. civil rights and anti-nuclear movements and in creating opportunities for post-war reconciliation in Vietnam, among much other work. AFSC’s experience dictates: “You need to go outside your comfort zone; you need to be finding the people who don’t share your views; you need to actually go and find the people possibly who may be coming at the issues you are dealing with in a completely different way, and interact with them and engage with them.”
  • The Swiss-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue believes that dialogue is the cheapest and most effective tool for preventing and resolving armed conflict. They have experience throughout Africa and Asia creating processes that bring disputing parties to the table. Why not use this same approach to create an environment here in the U.S where support for inclusive policies is the norm, not nationalistic policies?
  • Beyond Conflict is a Boston-based group that has led initiatives in more than 75 countries based on the premise that people can learn from each other and that people can change. They have brought together senior leaders from around the world to forge new pathways for progress in peace talks, transitions to democracy, and national reconciliation, including Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Central America, and Cuba. They are now drawing on their international experience to help build a more inclusive Boston.
  • Purdue Peace Project is supporting local citizens in northern Ghana to engage in dialogue to help bridge decades-long inter-ethnic tensions between Muslim and Christian communities. This ongoing dialogue opened up pathways forward together. The two communities are now working on violence prevention initiatives together in their local communities. Dialogue led to productive action.

Talk cannot address all injustices. But experience demonstrates that (re)building trust and creating opportunities for inclusive dialogue at local and national levels is an approach worth considering. Nelson Mandela’s words resonate: “conflicts are resolved through shifts that were unimaginable at the start”. Dialogue can help make the unimaginable not only imaginable, but possible.

About the authors: Stacey L. Connaughton is an Associate Professor and the Associate Head of the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University. She is the Director of the Purdue Peace Project. Jessica Berns is a Consultant to Non-Governmental Organizations, University-based programs, and philanthropists dedicated to good governance, peacebuilding, and social cohesion.