09 Aug 2018 Sanctuaries for deep dialogue and togetherness
Community dialogue circles use story telling and artwork to help groups feel safe sharing painful experiences. Photo: Somali Youth & Development Network.
We live on a fractured planet and we are the most fragmented species on the planet. We face fractures between generations, men and women, rich and poor, winners and losers, between those whose God is a God of fear and violence and those whose God is a God of love and care.
These fractures kill people, marginalize ever-larger numbers of people, tear the social fabric of many communities apart and ruthlessly destroy our fellow inhabitants, the non-human animals that vanish from the planet at an alarming rate. Without wanting to sound too apocalyptic: the accumulation of these substantial fractures may culminate in the disappearance of the human species.
Our actions are determined by our ways of thinking and therefore actions that threaten the future of the planet are inspired by certain modes of thought. In most discussions and negotiations, these remain hidden. We may talk about what we do but usually not about what we think. We may reach superficial public agreement and may create a common comfortable discourse but leave out what we really should say. What we really desire, hope for, expect or fear is often left unsaid. We will only act differently when we think differently.
A most intractable problem that we need to solve is the challenge of “thinking together” (Isaacs, 1999) rather than thinking as separate atoms. This is a tough problem since we are biologically, psychologically, and linguistically wired to think in fragments. We understand the notion of “parts” better than the concept of “wholeness” because we think in fragments and not in coherent patterns. Once we have fractured the world into isolated pieces it is an illusion to think that simply connecting through advanced technologies will create togetherness. Although social media may connect us globally, they do not create togetherness.
In short, we need to communicate in togetherness in order to find how to live together in a deeply fractured world.
There are different approaches possible to cope with fractures. We can try to heal them but should be aware that not all fractures can be healed. Some may touch on longstanding, deeply felt and existentially meaningful positions that cannot be harmonized. We can try to be indifferent to fractures and make an effort to ignore them. Indifference may have the positive effect of living with deep differences without feeling threatened or feeling resentful of the other – but just living in separate universes.
We can also try to cope with fractures through recognizing them, accepting their persistence, and not making attempts at concessions or compromises, but seeking moments of togetherness: communicative moments in which we interact with different others through “deep dialogue”.
Deep dialogue is the basis of “communicating together”. In the common way of conversation we hear only the words that fit our own conceptions. In many conversations, participants take positions that are no longer negotiable because they hold their assumptions to be truths and defend them even against overwhelming evidence of their absurdity. Caught up in our own prejudices, fears and feelings we often listen to ourselves and not to others. We often accuse the other of not listening and being prejudiced and prefer not to see those flaws in our own thinking. We seldom ask real questions and more often than not produce opinionated statements to which we add a question mark.
The basic requirements for deep dialogue are trust, proximity, patience, mutuality and freedom:
Trust means that in conversation I need to know that what the other says is genuine and the other should be assured that what I say is authentic. Against this demand of trust, our daily communicative practice is infected by massive flows of propagandistic messages, fake news and the powerful suggestion that we now live in the “post-truth” era.
Proximity means that deep dialogue needs the whole body. Against this our common communicative practice is “disembodied”. We miss the body language of those we converse with in our mediated exchanges and hear only their – often mechanically recorded – voices and see their Skyped faces.
Patience means taking time for reflection Deep dialogue is slow and needs time for ideas to sink in and to understand perspectives different from our own. In our communicative practice, however, we tend to seek instant gratification as we are obsessed by short texts and frequent updates. We are anxious to miss something and to be “out of the loop”.
Mutuality means reciprocity and cooperation. Against this, our communicative behaviour is often autistic as it focuses on “selfies” and self-glorifying Facebook pages. The competitive spirit that prevails in most societies defeats the purpose of deep dialogue since it renders conversational arenas places to win and to score.
Freedom means that people should be free to accept or reject each other’s claims on the basis of reasons they can evaluate. Respect for the communicative freedom of others is a basic recognition of their human agency. Against this a formidable obstacle is our tribal instinct that makes it very difficult to accept the other as fundamentally different from us and see their alterity as a unique feature that cannot be assimilated and reduced to similarity. Communicative freedom also means the challenge to say “I do not know”. Communicative freedom implies that we feel free to speak up. This means that we have to overcome an almost natural inclination to self-censorship that makes us not say things we want to say because we are afraid of the consequences.
Deep dialogue requires what Gordon Burghardt calls “a relaxed field”. From the study of animal play we learn that animals only play when they are relaxed and do not feel threatened by external forces. Having a deep dialogue is a form of playing and playing is an essential ingredient of human life. As Bellah beautifully formulates it, “time out of time…..is perhaps primordially characteristic of play”. The “extinction of time” happens in a relaxed playing field. (Bellah, 569). Relaxed playing fields are the sanctuaries where humans achieve “temporarily …the transformative power of community” (Bellah, 569.).
We should find them in our universities, schools and religious institutions. However, the realities of modern (neo-liberal, capitalist, individualist) societies and their unequal and hierarchical relations militate against the creation of relaxed fields.
The core mission of the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) in the coming years, therefore, will have to be – against all the odds – searching for, creating, and maintaining those sanctuaries where humanity can experience the ultimate play of deep dialogue.
To engage in authentic conversation and achieve togetherness in communication is a tall order indeed, since the obstacles are very real and intimidating. Yet I believe that we have no other option than to be optimistic. For me this is a “desperate optimism”. There is much reason to despair: such as the anger of Mother Gaia, the nuclear option, or the rapidly increasing global inequalities. Nevertheless, as Chomsky says in a recent interview, “if we despair we make things only worse!”
There are two strong arguments in favour of the position that we can achieve togetherness in communication. One argument is that most if not all the obstacles mentioned above are cultural constructs based upon ideas, beliefs, thoughts that are part of our cultural evolution. However resistant to change they may be, changes in the process of cultural evolution are real possibilities and can happen much more rapidly than transformations in our genetic evolution.
The second argument stems from the biological insight that the species homo learned early on that their communities would benefit from cooperative communication. Communication made the kind of coordination that hunting required possible and facilitated the organisation of complex societies. There is a good deal of evidence safely to suggest that the origin of human communication lies in the instinct to cooperate (Tomasello).
Through cooperative communication humans designed adequate adaptive systems that secured their survival and reproductive capacity. Human communication is based upon a cooperative infrastructure. The project of “communicating together” will be challenging and not always successful, but for desperate optimists there is no other way but engaging with it.
Bellah, R.N. (2011). Religion in Human Evolution. Cambridge (Mass), Harvard University Press.
Bohm, D. (1996). On Dialogue. London, Routledge.
Burghardt, G.M. The genesis of animal play. MIT press, 2005.
Chomsky, N. (2017). Optimism over Despair. Penguin Books
Isaacs, W. (1999). Dialogue and the art of thinking together. New York, Currency.
Tomasello, M. (2008). Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge, The MIT
Cees J. Hamelink, is emeritus professor of communication science at the University of Amsterdam.