Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Dialogue

One of the reports I was reading about the Norway shooting incident this past weekend mentioned the difficulties police have in trying to prevent such violent events. In the past, it might have been easier to infiltrate and keep tabs on hate groups because they used more traditional means of organizing themselves. Now that such people congregate primarily on the internet, it may be more difficult to penetrate their activities and predict when they will become violent. This suspect in particular was sending out somewhat ambiguous signals, which might not have provided sufficient clues to allow law enforcement to act.

One problem with modern forms of communication is that they encourage people to interact mainly with like-minded individuals, and to filter out views that differ from their own. We see this tendency on cable news, and on websites that cater to particular political viewpoints. We see it on both the left and the right and in between. People prefer to listen to viewpoints they already agree with, and they often try to exclude those who disagree with them from the conversation. When there is dialogue, it tends to consist of confrontational rhetoric that does nothing to encourage people to listen to and try to understand opposing points of view. It's ironic that the most universal and powerful communication tool in history can have a tendency to insulate people from differing ideas, and can reinforce prejudice and hate. The internet starts out as an open system, but allows groups to build walls where they can demonize other groups that they define as the "other."

What is needed is to create more safe spaces where people are obliged to consider opposing points of view in a respectful way. That is the only way people can learn to communicate with one another without feeling the urge to silence those whose views differ from their own.

On my political bog, where I also posted the first version of this piece, I have offered some rules for conducting such a civil dialogue.  My suggestions include refraining from name-calling, from questioning other people's motives, from exaggerating, from misrepresenting, and from blaming. On that website, even though my posts maintain a definite point of view, I have also attempted, in my own modest way, to create a safe space for people of differing viewpoints to disagree and argue with one another, and I appreciate comments from people of all political stripes, especially the ones who disagree with me, so long as they are willing to engage in a civil conversation.

This terrible incident in Norway also made me think about the work of Ken Cloke, who believes that mediation can go a long way toward solving a lot of the world's political and social problems, including the problems of evil, injustice, war and terrorism. One object of mediation is to create a safe space where conflicts can be addressed in a non-threatening way, and people learn to understand and attempt to reconcile opposing points of view. 

Obviously, some points of view are difficult to include in a civil dialogue. If somebody thinks we need to round up and expel or kill all the Muslims, or all the Jews, or all the blacks, that viewpoint is impossible to accommodate. But we can still have a reasonable debate about immigration policy, or religious tolerance, or education, that includes concerns about national identity and culture, without allowing for extreme solutions that would deny the legitimate rights of others. The haters need to be included in that dialogue, so they feel they have an alternative to congregating only among themselves, and plotting violence. 

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