“Dialogue” is an extremely misunderstood word. It’s not overused, or even overrated, but its meaning tends to be subject to the person doing all the talking. Truman Capote thought himself a pretty intelligent man, and so it made sense that when he gave his own definition of dialogue he put it this way: “A conversation is not a dialogue, not a monologue. That’s why there are so few good conversations: due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet.” In other words, Capote regarded himself as one of the enlightened few.
I think I prefer David Bohm’s idea of what good conversation means: “A new kind of mind thus comes into being, which is based on the development of common meaning that is constantly transforming in the process of dialogue.” Capote assumed he had the tools for good dialogue; Bohm sees it as a work in progress that he has yet to attain with others. The first is the conversation of the elites, the second of citizenship.
True dialogue is an art, not so much based on knowledge of language as it is on disposition of spirit. It seems as though in modern democracy that everyone has an opinion. That’s not new. What has developed, though, is a rigidity of positioning that makes meaningful conversation virtually impossible. Our opinions are vital to how we function as citizens, yet they aren’t necessary complete, or even right. They must be refined, at times amended, and in the end expressed if our communities are to move into the future.
This is one of the great illusions of our modern political system. We think we have points to argue, compromise to be found, and eventual action to be taken. It’s nothing like that at all. The positions are already set, by the party, not the citizen or the political representative. In my time in Ottawa, I learned that the positions to which the parties held were exactly the same at the end of my tenure as they were when it began – nothing had changed. All that talk. All that debate. All that performing for the media. Certainly the policies of each party were important, but they were also inflexible, devoid of life and progress. There was no democratic dialogue, merely a lot of words wrapped in pre-formatted boxes.
And as citizens we have permitted those confines to sap us of our ability to talk to one another so as to find ways to move ahead despite our differences. For those interested in politics there is the endless fixation on leadership. Take the Liberal party as just one example. Some wanted Bob Rae as leader. A few are attempting to recruit Andrew Coyne, the journalist. Others are tripping over themselves to support Justin Trudeau. (Notice few are talking about a woman). Coyne is the most prescient of the batch because he knows it’s a fallacy to press him or anyone else for leadership. Justin I know fairly well, and Bob Rae very well, but to look for them to lead the party back to power is foolishness. It will take something far more fundamental. If it were truly possible, Obama would be rocking right now.
It’s the political system that is stuck, not leadership. And not one party or their leader is succeeding in this. The list of our greatest challenges remain unaddressed and unresolved. They are all failing because they permitted Canadians to lose interest in politics through all the shenanigans, propaganda, and partisanship. This penchant for a leader to take this country to the Promised Land is ill-founded because no one leader or party can change the hyper-partisan, leader driven system we currently endure. Citizens must drive that change.
What is true in politics has become reality in our local citizenship efforts as well. All too frequently people maintain positions but have absolutely no intention of amending them. They somehow mistake the passion of their opinions for veracity. In truth there is very little that is cemented in place in true politics. It’s a work in progress, and even more importantly, in process. The genius of democracy is not how right we are, but how open we are to finding workable arrangements with other citizens so that our communities can be bettered. There is no one answer to politics; there are millions – each one important but not exclusive.
This is why our human natures are more vital than our opinions. A flexible mind is of far more use to our communities than a litany of precepts. In true dialogue, both are willing to listen and change.
For the next few posts we’ll consider the stages through which dialogue must progress if our communities, and our country, are to benefit from it. Talk is cheap if it can’t grow. Learning to converse as citizens endeavour to help their communities is priceless.