Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Death of Dialogue

"Olive Branches and Morning Sun"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Last week when we were visiting our family in Washington DC, we all decided to take a walk around the National Mall and eventually found ourselves standing in front of the White House where all sorts of different groups had assembled to raise their voices to promote their causes. The “Right to Life” camp was there chanting slogans and holding placards with gruesome pictures of aborted fetuses. There was a group of fundamentalist Christians preaching a sermon about Jesus as the only way to truth. Another group of folks were protesting against Wall Street and another group were shouting slogans in support of Gay and Lesbian rights.

As I stood in the midst of all those very diverse and different camps of people assembled there outside the White House, I overheard a dad tell his child: “Look son, what you see here is democracy in action. Personally, I couldn’t possibly disagree more with the dad’s assessment.

Those many diverse groups outside the White House were more like armed camps of like-minded individuals “at war” with those in different camps - everyone was trying to shout everyone else down, no one was actually talking with one another or listening to one another, and everyone was absolutely certain that their way was the right way and the only way. As I see it, this is about as far away as you can get from seeing “democracy in action.”

I vividly remember a trip we took to Greece some years ago where we visited the ancient Greek Agora located in the center of Athens. In the fifth century BC, the Agora was a public marketplace where, every day merchants from around the region would come to sell their wares; but the Agora was far more than a place for buying and selling. It was also a place where people gathered to meet one another for a lively exchange of ideas.

Many different philosophers, scientists, mathematicians and religious authorities would come into the Agora to publicly engage in a dialogue with each another. They had many different points of view but their dialogue was always respectful. They not only spoke their minds but they also listened to one another. They didn’t always agree and sometimes they even had to agree to disagree. It was in and through this dialogue that greater truth and deeper wisdom emerged.

Ancient Greece is often referred to as the Birthplace of Democracy.  If you ask me, what went on in the Agora is a perfect example of democracy in action.

When I think of what is happening in our own times, I almost never witness people engaging in a genuine dialogue with one another. All I ever see and hear are shouting matches and strident voices as people hurl insults against one another sure that their way of thinking is the one way and the only way. I have come to wonder if we live in an era when dialogue is dead?

The other day at a Trump rally, a lone protester stood up in the crowd silently holding up a sign that dared to differ with Mr. Trump’s ideas. The protester was immediately rounded up by guards and roughly dragged out of the rally as the crowd jeered and hurled vile insults at the man. Donald Trump announced that “he’d like to punch that guy in the face.”  

I fear that what went on at the “Trump Rally” is probably more iconic of American society today than what went on in the Ancient Greek Agora.

I am reminded of something Wendell Barry once said:

‘Every man for himself’ is a doctrine for a feeding frenzy
or for a panic in a burning nightclub
appropriate for sharks or hogs or perhaps a cascade of lemmings.
A society wishing to endure must speak the language of care-taking,
kindness, neighborliness and peace.

If, in fact, dialogue is dead and if we have become little more than a bunch of barbarian gangs with each of us feuding for our own special interests, then we are not a society that will long endure. In fact, if dialogue is dead on a larger global scale, we are not a planet that will long endure.

The Dalai Lama once observed:

The reality today is that we are all interdependent
and have to co-exist on this small planet.
Therefore the only sensible and intelligent way of resolving differences
and clashes of interest, whether between individuals or nations,
is through dialogue.

In our Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, in internet chat rooms, at public rallies and Town Hall meetings we all need to revive the spirit of our ancestors who gathered together in the ancient Agora.

Our future depends upon it.  

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