Peacebuilding Through Dialogue
I normally do my weekly blog post on Mondays. I had to delay it this week, and after a few guilt pangs, I’m glad I did. Tuesday’s Washington Post carried an amazing op-ed by Arthur Brooks and the Dalai Lama, “All of us can break the cycle of hatred.” At first glance, they may seem like an odd couple. Brooks is the CEO of the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. The Dalai Lama is, well, the Dalai Lama. Enough said.
It turns out that Brooks has long studied Buddhism and worked with His Holiness. He has also long called for dialogue across partisan lines and is the author of Love Your Enemies which Jeff Bezos personally just sent to my Kindle. In this article (and presumably in Brooks’ book), they make the case for disagreeing well, which in my own work has revolved around the word dialogue.
I first started thinking about dialogue when I encountered a statement by the late pollster and philosopher, Daniel Yankelovich, who stated that a dialogue was a conversation that was so intense that it left neither party unchanged. Since then, I’ve realized that dialogues are a necessary but not sufficient tool both for peacebuilding and for making lasting change of any sort that depends on buy-in from all or most of those involved.
His Holiness and Brooks reinforced all that in their article:
To begin with, the solution is not for people simply to agree with each other, or to prevent disagreements from occurring. There is nothing wrong or inherently destructive about having ideas that differ from those of others. On the contrary, disagreement is necessary in a pluralistic society to find the best solutions to problems. The ability to disagree freely is one of the great blessings of modern democracy.
The solution — and the opportunity for each of us — lies not in disagreeing less, but in understanding the appropriate way to disagree with others, even when we are treated with hatred. To vanquish foes and destroy enemies does not mean to ill-treat others in any way, or even to seek victory over them in a traditional sense. The objective is not to vanquish a person I considered my enemy; it is to destroy the illusion that he or she was my enemy in the first place. And the way to do this is by overcoming my own negative emotions.
Consider the next to last sentence. To some degree, you are my enemy because I make you into one.
Let me be clear. I can’t stand just about everything the Trump Administration is doing. I’m doing what I can to undo it.
However, it becomes “the enemy” when I make it so by deciding that it is truly beyond the pale and not worth talking to.
I’m also not saying that simply sitting down and having a discussion with people you disagree with is enough. Absolutely not.
However, I’ve spent enough time with people I strongly disagree with and seen us both change as a result often enough that I know it can work. Emphasis on can.
Dialogues of the type Brooks and the Dalai Lama suggest are not the magic wand. They take time. They don’t always reduce tensions. They certainly don’t always lead to the kind of lasting social change that I care about.
Without them, however, we tend to keep demonizing each other and keep ourselves in the kind of dysfunctional, angry spiral that is political life today.
Conducting dialogue like discussions is not all that hard. As my colleague Peter Stearns has shown in his new book Peacebuilding Through Dialogue which I have reviewed elsewhere, it should be an integral part of our educational process. If you take a course in peace and conflict studies, you will probably learn how to run one. Amanda Ripley has shown how journalists could and should use dialogic tools in their reporting. Indeed, the list goes on and on.
So, read their article, think about it, and then figure out how to change the way you deal with the people you disagree with. You’ll make a lot more progress with them. And, you will learn something. Most importantly of all, you will feel better about yourself when you’re done.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.
Also published on Medium.