Jan 03, 2014 Editorial
In this new year, we have to be candid and accept that the major impediment to the development of our dear land has been the inability of our people, especially our political elite, to arrive at a social covenant that is seen as fair by the masses of our people. For too long we have not been actually speaking to each other but rather we have been mouthing words at each other. This year we have to resolve to do better.
The following perspective on “dialogue” is taken from the programme on resolving intractable conflicts – and you no doubt will agree that it appears that they are talking about us, Guyanese.
“People often lack the ability to converse about subjects that matter deeply to them without getting into a dispute. As a result, public discourse about divisive issues is often characterised by destructive debate that can lead to group division and violence.
This is often because parties are operating from different interpretations of facts and events that may not even be fully understood by the parties themselves. When public conflicts are long lasting and involve seemingly irreconcilable differences of identity, worldviews, and values, parties tend to cling to their own positions and denigrate views of the opposing side. They rarely ask each other questions or genuinely listen to what the other side is saying.
In many cases, while one person is talking, the other person is thinking of what he will say when it is his turn to talk. Effective communication is blocked by competition, prejudice, and fear, and parties’ ways of relating start to deteriorate. They tend to make impassioned statements about the issues and to focus on moral or logical flaws in the other side’s position.
Opponents often rely on rhetoric, and become defensive in the face of evidence that their position is invalid or that an opposed opinion is valid. They also tend to stereotype each other and misunderstand each other’s positions, causing them to become increasingly polarised. As a result, the atmosphere of conversations is often threatening, characterised by personal attacks and interruptions. Even if parties are secretly undecided about any aspect of the issue, they will not voice these reservations. They may fear that if they do not hold on to their positions, they will look weak or be criticized by their compatriots.
These destructive shouting matches do not help to address long-standing conflicts over public issues. Repetitive communication that is based in entrenched positions tends to close people’s minds to new ideas. Parties simply argue more loudly and refuse to be receptive to others’ views. These polarised ways of relating pose significant barriers for collaboration, and make informed and empathic problem-solving impossible. Opportunities for social learning are often lost.
In addition, because such conversations are filled with rhetoric and accusations, the public is exposed to a very limited discourse in public debates. This detracts from the involvement and education of citizens.”
Dialogue has no fixed goal or predetermined agenda. The emphasis is not on resolving disputes, but rather on improving the way in which people with significant differences relate to each other. The broad aim is to promote respectful inquiry, and to stimulate a new sort of conversation that allows important issues to surface freely. While opponents in deep-rooted conflict are unlikely to agree with each other’s views, they can come to understand each other’s perspectives.
When people enter into conversations with others, they bring with them basic assumptions about the meaning of life, their country’s interest, how society works, and what is most valuable. Most of these basic assumptions come from society and are rooted in culture, race, religion, and economic background. As a result, people coming from different backgrounds have different basic assumptions and values, and these clashing views and perspectives often lead to conflict.
Dialogue attempts to expose these assumptions and the thought processes that lie behind them. It calls on participants to pay attention to their thinking, feelings, assumptions, and patterns of communication. However, this can happen only if people are able to listen to each other without prejudice and without trying to influence one another, and are ready to abandon their old ideas in the face of new and better ones. Therein lies probably our biggest obstacle.
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