Dialogue Takes Two: Why Sharing Ideas Matters
A failed attempt at dialogue
Once, I asked a friend, let's call her Tabitha, about her experience determining she identified as transgender. She had come to this conclusion in her 20's and was wondering what her life would have been like had she concluded it sooner. I was curious: What was her thought process like? Why then, and not sooner?
In the same conversation, I commented that I was interested in metaphysical and phenomenological understandings of being and experience, and thus, was curious about people's experience of transgenderism and gender in general. I'd read some related work during my dissertation research, such as the fantastic book Warriors and Worriers: The Survival of the Sexes by Joyce Benenson, which examined gender roles in society from an evolutionary psychology and anthropology perspective. Did Tabitha have recommendations for scholarly works I might read that she considered authoritative? When approaching new topics, I frequently like to pick up a book or a series of research articles rather than meander around the Internet. In this case, I thought Tabitha might have suggestions for authors, researchers, or other folks that she thought presented a truthful picture in their writing.
Tabitha's reply? That she wasn't a scientist nor an academic, and that my asking for authoritative scholarly works felt dehumanizing. Academia wasn't an unbiased source of knowledge. There were so many ways to be trans, it was hard to point to any one source and say with certainty that it was authoritative. But here was a link to a list of resources compiled by some sociologists. And that was where the conversation ended.
She misunderstood what I was asking for. In science, especially psychology, there is a constant tension between attempts to make generalizations about groups or populations versus attempts to understand individuals. Psychologist Philip Runkel called it "casting nets and testing specimens."
I wanted both stories—both the "lived experience" anecdotes, the descriptions from individuals, and the attempts made so far (probably by biased academics) to look at averages and understand in general what the experience was like. You need both to understand. To elevate individuals over groups or vice versa ignores the fact that both ways of understanding are valid and imperfect and necessary to see the full picture. No individual will be perfectly represented by generalizations and averages (and may in fact be completely unlike the average). No group can be described without delving into what, in general, makes the people in the group similar.
In shutting down the conversation when she felt uncomfortable, Tabitha shut down an opportunity for dialogue. We didn't have the opportunity to talk about these tensions in looking at groups versus individuals. Tabitha didn't have the opportunity to share more about her own experiences (which would have been valuable). And I didn't have the opportunity to learn from her.
Willingness to dialogue: Addir Fellows
Dialogue is only possible if everyone in the conversation is willing to dialogue.
In graduate school at MIT, I had the privilege of participating in a unique and wonderful program: the Addir Fellows. "Addir" means "bridge" in Ancient Sumerian. Started by Ora Gladstone in 2006 as part of a federal grant to promote interfaith understanding, the Addir Fellows program brought groups of students together for weekly small-group dialogues and monthly dinners and lectures.
The students in my group held vastly different religious beliefs and came from widely different cultural backgrounds—orthodox Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Mormon, atheist. Each week, we shared personal stories and talked over on all manner of topics. Every conversation was approached with an attitude of openness and a desire for understanding. No one was trying to convert or convince anyone; we wanted to know about the worldviews of our fellows and the way to do that was to listen, ask questions, and listen more. We came together each week with the assumption that the others in the group also wanted to understand—and so, even though we wildly and often strongly disagreed, we kept coming back to listen and talk more.
That was easily one of the best experiences I had at MIT. Understanding requires listening to viewpoints that don't necessarily align with your own—even if unfamiliar or unwelcome. Understanding doesn't mean agreeing—it just means looking at where people are coming from, why they hold the opinions they do, what they believe... It means being curious. That's what was so wonderful about the Addir Fellows. Everyone wanted to understand.
COVID and geography
On my birthday this summer, I had a video chat with a friend, let's call her Jane. Jane asked our plans for the day: baking a cake, perhaps? Playing with the kids in the yard? Having a little family party at home?
We're going to my mom's house, I said. Dinner and cake.
"You're going to her house." Meaning: you're not staying completely isolated until a vaccine is available. You're seeing another person.
"Yes. We are. It's fine." It was going to be a small, family group—less than the common 10-person limits on gatherings, though we didn't have a limit in place locally. We all take reasonable precautions, based on research we've done (and I'm the kind of person who reads through meta-analyses on the effectiveness of different kinds of masks), based on our individual needs and knowledge of our local situation.
Plus—importantly—we live in a far less populated area than Jane. The total number of COVID-19 related cases and deaths per capita in our area is usually less than the number of cases and deaths per day in hers. Even when there's no pandemic keeping people isolated, we encounter far fewer people on a daily basis than Jane does. We're also pretty certain some of the family already had COVID-19 in February, before testing was available to confirm it.
"I don't think we can continue this conversation." Jane hung up on me.
(On my birthday!)
None of the context mattered. Because we weren't following the exact rules Jane was following in her city to the letter, the rules she had decided must apply universally (despite context, you know, mattering), she shut down the conversation. Jane knew all the facts I listed above, but the very idea that my judgment about what was reasonable behavior for myself and my family could differ from hers led to a strong, negative reaction that cut off dialogue. It shut down the opportunity for either of us to learn from the other. Nothing shared, nothing gained.
Unfortunately, my experience is becoming all too common. While these conversations with Tabitha and Jane did not result in relationships being lost entirely, there is a growing trend for people to cut family members—children, parents, grandparents—out of their lives because of their political views or non-conforming behavior.
Ideas are violence?
The notion that disagreement can't be tolerated is a huge problem. Bad ideas need to be exposed and explained, not ignored.
Some people, particularly on the progressive left, consider some viewpoints so toxic that engaging in any way with a person espousing those views is anathema. Whether they feel dehumanized, oppressed, anxious, hurt, or whether they simply think you are wrong, their answer is to close off further conversation. Maybe, in some cases, that's the right thing to do. But in so many, the answer should be to engage in further dialogue. We shouldn't let the most sensitive among us dictate the terms of conversation.
Instead, seek understanding of the other's point of view. Find common ground, uncover unexamined assumptions, pursue truth. Discover whether the ideas are, in fact, bad ones—and why, and perhaps, through dialogue, change someone's mind.
When ideas are labeled violence, dialogue becomes impossible. If speaking about particular ideas or in particular ways is disallowed, how do we critique these ideas? How do we find truth? How do we grow?
Without communication, understanding becomes impossible. Without understanding, empathy is lost.
The world's not going to get any better by ignoring the people we don't agree with. Shut down the conversation, hang up the phone—those people and their ideas still exist. There will always be people with different beliefs and opinions. Ostracizing them won't make them disappear.
But if you try to understand who they are, what they believe, where they're coming from, why they do what they do? Then they don't have to disappear. Then there's dialogue. There's empathy. There's transmission of ideas, exchange of viewpoints, discovery of truth, and, perhaps, changes of opinion. There's the ability to live side by side with people different from you.
The people you don't agree with can be part of your diverse community. Diversity of belief and opinion matter, too, not just diversity of skin color or gender.