My job these days involves inviting red and blue Americans in our deeply polarized nation to talk with, rather than simply at or about, each other. I love the work, and believe with all my heart that it’s essential for the nation. But today the word most often publicly used by its advocates to describe it is “dialogue”—and for me that’s a problem, a hindrance that makes the work harder. The main reason this is so is not trivial.
The essence of the problem is that “dialogue” is an almost entirely “blue” linguistic marker and institution. That’s why it’s no accident that liberals are typically eager for “dialogue,” while many conservatives wince at the use of the term and are wary of the concept. The result, if I may be allowed a sports metaphor, is that an effort to bring together tennis players and weightlifters is being led by tennis coaches working on tennis courts. Is it any wonder that the weightlifters are often less than receptive?
Why is dialogue blue? And what should or can be done about it?
When it comes to modes of conversation in which people disagree, conservatives wary of “dialogue” tend to favor “debate.” Unlike dialogue, debate implies a clear-cut contest—you make your best case, I’ll make mine—in which, in principle, one side wins. The social benefit of debate, say its advocates, is that a vigorous contest of ideas is the best and perhaps only way for society to find the truth.
Here we encounter an irony. This conservative-favored conclusion about the way of disagreeing most conducive to the public good emerged historically as a core tenet of liberalism. The pedigree of the idea is both impressive and classically liberal. John Milton in Areopagitica, his famous 1644 defense of free speech, asks: “Let Truth and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” John Stuart Mill in On Liberty in 1869 argues that truth is more clearly understood by virtue of its “collision with error.” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his famous dissent in Abrams v. United States in 1919, defending the right of anarchists to publish anti-government and anti-war propaganda, writes: “The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” And the leftwing British political theorist Harold Laski wrote in 1919 that, “in the clash of ideas we shall find the means of truth. There is no other safeguard of progress.”1
The fact that conservatives have become today’s main champions of debate produces interesting social consequences. One is that on today’s American college campuses, for example, conservatives more than liberals are the outspoken and principled defenders of free speech and open debate.2
“Dialogue” differs significantly from debate. It’s also historically a much newer idea. The fundamental spirit and activity of dialogue is careful listening to those with whom we disagree. In his 2017 essay on “The Power of Dialogue,” Scott London defines dialogue as
a form of discussion aimed at fostering mutual insight and common purpose. The process involves listening with empathy, searching for common ground, exploring new ideas and perspectives, and bringing unexamined assumptions into the open.3
In Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, his respected 1999 book on the subject, William Isaacs defines dialogue as “a conversation in which people think together in relationship” and “a way of taking the energy of our differences and channeling it toward something that has never been created before.” For Isaacs, dialogue is the best and perhaps only social strategy that can “lifts us out of polarization.”4
The benefits of dialogue, then, says its advocates, are less stereotyped thinking about “the other side,” the discovery of common ground and new ways of working together, and ultimately a richer and fuller understanding of the truth and the common good.
Dialogue and debate differ in numerous ways, but two differences are especially important. First, people in debates are not expected to change their views as a result of the debate. Quite the opposite: they are expected to try to change other people’s views. But in dialogue, as Isaacs puts it, you
no longer take your own position as final. You relax your grip on certainty and listen to the possibilities that result simply from being in a relationship with others—possibilities that might not otherwise have occurred.5
Why is this idea central to dialogue? One reason is that dialogue favors conciliation over conflict. Another and probably more seminal reason is the underlying belief of dialogue leaders—supported now by a body of social science evidence—that diverse groups are wiser and can make better decisions than either homogeneous groups or gifted individuals.6
The second key difference is that dialogue, unlike debate, usually incorporates the participants’ personal experiences and feelings as well as their abstractly formulated philosophical positions. In debate, disembodied rationality and what the young Abraham Lincoln in 1838 called “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason” are intended to reign alone. But in dialogue, therapeutic guidance, coaching, and subjective expression are not simply permitted, but are often expected and at times required of and by dialogue leaders.
Dialogue tends to cultivate and encourage expressions of caring. Says Wellesley College’s current Guide for Dialogue Facilitators: “Dialogue involves a concern for the other person and seeks to not alienate or offend.”7 The educator and philosopher Nel Noddings, who focusses on the ethics of care, says that “dialogue is such an essential part of caring that we could not model caring without engaging in it.”8
So we’re left with this question: Why do conservatives as a group embrace the traditionally liberal concept of debate and disavow dialogue, while liberals do exactly the opposite? I can think of two main answers, but let’s start with one that, in my view, does not hold water.
Some people (liberals all, so far as I know) suggest that conservatives are more reluctant than liberals to expose themselves to alternative viewpoints. In my experience, I’ve found no evidence to support this thesis and quite a bit, including recent findings from researchers, to discredit it.9 Most conservatives are just as prepared as most liberals to engage those with whom they disagree, and the truly dogmatic personalities that refuse to engage are, it seems to me, evenly distributed ideologically. No, the issue dividing the two groups is not whether to engage, but how they prefer to engage.
So what does explain this polarization? First, the entire concept and practice of dialogue—who funds it, who studies and writes about it, who advocates for it, who designs it, who convenes it, and who leads it—is overwhelmingly blue. Why this is so and whether it must remain so are useful questions to pose, but for the moment let’s simply admit that it’s so, which of course helps explain why conservatives tend to be wary.
Second, and in my view more importantly, conservatives are generally reluctant to participate in a process in which they are expected as a condition of participation to alter their views. Wellesley College’s Guide for Dialogue Facilitators teaches that “the primary purpose of dialogue is for each person to learn from the other so that each can change and grow.”10
Why so many conservatives—properly, in my view—mistrust this idea is not hard to discover. It has to do with power. In the overwhelmingly blue-dominated world of American dialogue, liberals have it and conservatives don’t. Here’s how my friend R. R. “Rusty” Reno, the conservative editor of First Things, puts it:
In my years as a theology professor, as a rare conservative in higher education, I became accustomed to calls for dialogue on this or that issue. In almost every instance, it was a set-up for mandatory public capitulation. If someone regards abortion as a moral evil and same-sex marriage as an oxymoron, as I do, he cannot say so in a public forum, for it amounts to a sin against dialogue. It “shuts down conversation,” I was told on many occasions. . . . The movement from dialogue to censure and then denunciation is often a smooth one.11
Rusty seems to me to overstate his case, since I don’t believe that U.S. dialogue leaders are typically guilty of bad faith. But I do recognize what he’s describing. After all, in a typical U.S. dialogue, who gets to frame the questions? Set the tone? Do the coaching on how to be sensitive to others? Determine what defines “expert facilitation” and what is politically charged facilitation presenting itself as expertise? In Orwell’s Animal Farm, we learn that, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” To extend this idea, conservatives considering whether to engage in liberal-sponsored dialogue might be displaying more than simply defensiveness or paranoia to suspect that, “All voices in a dialogue are equal, but some voices are more equal than others.”
What, then, is to be done? Is there a creative new blend of dialogue and debate waiting to be born? Can we change our ideas of how to structure conversation so that in the future red and blue Americans can gather together in roughly equal numbers and with shared confidence for careful conversation aimed at rediscovering civic trust and common ground? Here are four suggestions.
Change the name. The word “dialogue” is so deeply blue I doubt anything can be done at this point to depolarize it. What’s a better name for the activity? Maybe, “workshop”?
Don’t ask or expect people to change their views. I think we should stop saying that red-blue engagement means being open to moderating your views or changing your mind. Most conservatives, for understandable reasons, simply won’t sign up for such a project. It’s true that part of the beauty of this activity is that participants often do enlarge their thinking—if not about issues, then at least about each other. That is a kind of change in thinking, but not a flat either/or sort of change. But why is it necessary to imply upfront that participants are likely or expected to “change and grow,” as opposed to simply permitting change and growth to happen or not happen freely, organically, and individually, as unforced and unrequired results of the activity rather than as a required component of it?
Keep teaching and coaching to a minimum. Here I mean that we should significantly cut down on things like correcting people who make insensitive remarks, intervening when someone in the group appears to be uncomfortable, or in other ways instructing participants on how they should speak to and act toward one another. Grassroots democracy is an often rough but essential activity, and my colleagues and I have found that, while it’s important to establish basic conversational guardrails to insure civility, it’s also important to let people speak freely, doing as little policing as possible. On a practical level, there are definitely some things more counterproductive than liberals trying to teach conservatives how to speak, or vice versa, but not many.
Change who’s in control. This reform is by far the most important, and without it none of the other changes are likely to make much difference. If today we put into one arena every person in America who funds, organizes, leads, studies, or advocates for structured red-blue conversation, you can be sure that more than 90 percent of them would be liberals. And here’s the hard but inescapable truth: Meaningful red-blue engagement in America is flatly inconsistent with this fact. That’s why this socio-political reality must change dramatically and at every level, from who pays, to who plans and designs, to who attends, to who evaluates and publicizes—otherwise what the nation needs most simply will not happen.
What’s the next step? Hmmm… lemme think. Should a group of leaders interested in addressing this challenge—half-red, half-blue—come together for in-depth conversation rooted in empathetic listening and aimed at new and better collective thinking? Shall we debate? Shall we dialogue?
1. Harold J. Laski, Authority in the Modern State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919), 279-280.
2. Jonathan Rauch, the author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (2013), says in a January 1, 2018, interview that “free speech is a principle that’s most needed, and thus most strongly defended, by people with unpopular or minority view—and right now, on America’s college campuses, those people tend to be conservatives. That’s probably why so many campus progressives see free expression as a right-wing idea.”
3. Scott London, “The Power of Dialogue,” 2017 (www.scottlondon.com/articles/ondialogue.html). Some assume that “dialogue” comes from “two” and thus involves only two persons. But the word’s etymology indicates “occurring through words” and a dialogue can involve any number of persons of differing views.
4. William Isaacs, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together (New York, 1999), p. 19.
6. David Rock and Heidi Grant, “Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter, Harvard Business Review, November 4, 2016. Jose L. Duarte, Jarret T. Crawford, Charlotta Stern, and Jonathan Haidt, “Political diversity will improve social psychological science,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 38, no. 130 (2015). Scott E. Page, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies (Princeton University Press, 2007).
7. “Appendix B: Comparison of Dialogue and Debate,” in “Before we can have a discussion about facilitating, we must first have an understanding of the dialogue process,” Wellesley College Guide for Dialogue Facilitators,
8. Nel Noddings, Educating Moral People (New York: Teachers College Press, 2002), as cited in “Nel Noddings, the ethics of care and education,” London: YMCA George Williams College (http://infed.org/mobi/nel-noddings-the-ethics-of-care-and-education/).
9. See Jeremy A.Frimer, Linda J. Skitka, & Matt Motyl, “Liberals and conservatives are similarly motivated to avoid exposure to one another’s opinions,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 72 (2017), 1-12.
10. Wellesley College Guide for Dialogue Facilitators, op. cit.
11. R. R. Reno, “Against Human Rights,” First Things, May 2016. Reno concludes: “Our moment calls for witness, not dialogue. . . . It’s telling that the spirit of dialogue has no role to play in the New Testament. Thus I make a pledge: First Things will never call for dialogue.” I’ll invoke what might be called footnote privilege to argue with Rusty on this point. First, the essence of the “spirit of dialogue” is charity toward others, and in my view the New Testament’s cup runneth over with this idea. Second, it’s easy for Rusty to express his disgust with U.S. liberals by announcing that he’ll “never call for dialogue,” but in doing so, he walks away from what I think he’d agree are impressive people and movements. To cite only one example, one of the most inspiring movements for freedom in my lifetime was the 1977 “Charter 77” movement in Czechoslovakia, in which Václav Havel and others, against all odds, publicly (and eventually successfully) challenged the Communist dictatorship. What did the Charter aim to do? Here’s what it said: “Charter 77 does not aim, then, to set out its own platform of political or social reform or change, but within its own field of impact to conduct a constructive dialogue with the political and state authorities … (emphasis added)” Dialogue has played an important role in the history of humankind’s struggle for freedom and it’s a mistake to disavow that history and role just because you’re angry today with today’s liberals.