Dialogue: More Than Just Talk
This piece was inspired by author Irshad Manji’s presentation for Washington University’s Day of Discovery and Dialogue 2019.
Dialogue is a very basic thing – nothing more than an exchange with another individual. It is the simple act of sharing your thoughts, and listening to others as they do the same.
And yet, it seems that true dialogue is becoming a rarer and rarer occurrence in our modern lives. There is a tendency to slap labels on those who disagree with us, those who hold different values dear, or those who we don’t understand.
There is a tendency to surround ourselves with others who share our platform. A tendency to write people off when they can’t see things from our standpoint, the right standpoint. A tendency to shut people down when they hold a belief that we have pre-emptively deemed to be wrong or unjustified. There is no effort to understand, let alone empathize.
I’m not referring to online spaces where users post vitriolic remarks under anonymity. Lack of meaningful dialogue is just as present in institutions of higher education as it is in the echo chambers of the web. When students do not feel safe sharing views that run contrary to what that school has sanctioned to be justified and moral, it is a threat to education and thought.
Over the years, institutions have increasingly championed diversity – of race, gender, sexuality, age and abilities. Individuals are different internally just as they are different externally. When can we embrace diversity of thought and perspectives with equal respect?
Dialogue means not assuming. It means responding, not reacting. It means respecting others, and being open to the possibility that they have something valuable to contribute. It means being humble enough to know that you are not always right.
Dialogue may not necessarily produce all the answers, but it is certainly a necessary step to finding them, or at the very least, a step towards the right questions.
Dialogue is needed now more than ever in our institutions, and our lives. The next time we encounter an idea or comment that is particularly distasteful or perhaps even offensive, perhaps we can try to see it as an opportunity for learning or self-improvement, and a pathway towards greater understanding and empathy.