Reflections on the Possibilities and Limitations of Dialogue

On the one year anniversary of the “Unite the Right” rally and protests in Charlottesville, Virginia held in 2017, we revisit the reflections of our board colleagues, Derek Brown and Jeff Seul.  Derek offered his reflections on the events in the community that he calls home. Jeff offered his thoughts on the challenging question of whether dialogue was a sufficient mechanism for social change, following the rallies held in Boston the weekend following Charlottesville’s events.

Reflections from our Hometown

by Derek Brown

Two  Friday’s ago, my wife and I attended a standing room only ecumenical service at St. Paul’s Memorial Church here in Charlottesville, which was organized in response to the “Unite the Right” rally scheduled for the following day.  The rally, as most in this country now know, involved dozens of self-identified white nationalists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis, including the National Socialist Movement, Vanguard America, Identity Europa, Richard Spencer, and others. In addition to attempting to “unite” their often fractious ranks, these groups and individuals came to our city to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, one of three local monuments to Confederate figures.

At the conclusion of the service, we were told not to leave the church due to over 200 torch-bearing white nationalist protestors heading in our direction. These protestors had arrived in our town a day early, and had launched an unpublicized march across the grounds of the University of Virginia, chanting “You will not replace us,” “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and Soil” (a reference to slogan embraced by the Nazi’s in the 1930’s). After waiting for 10-15 minutes, the hundreds of attendees of all ages exited the church by a small door at the rear to avoid the protestors.

The service at St. Paul’s, at which some 650 citizens of Charlottesville were encouraged to find “the courage to love,” stood in strong contrast to what took place across the street that night.  In the hours after we left the church, we learned that in addition to their ugly chants, the protestors were throwing punches and their torches at a small group of students and community members who had symbolically surrounded a statue of Thomas Jefferson to defend their university.  Those first acts of violence ushered in 24 hours of horror that resulted in the deaths of three people and the injuring and hospitalization of dozens more.

As individuals dedicated to supporting peacemakers globally, the events in Charlottesville the last two weeks have underscored what we have long known: the need to transform conflict is as keen a challenge to us in the United States, as elsewhere.  While our challenges may be different than those of our friends and colleagues in Syria or Myanmar, the fissures that divide our polarized society have led, and are capable of leading to, horrific outcomes.   As is true anywhere, our conflicts here in the U.S. cannot be transformed unless significant numbers of us are willing to examine, honestly and completely, the historical and current conditions and grievances that have driven them.

So what is to be done?   At a sunrise service on the Saturday morning of the planned rally, speakers at Charlottesville’s First Baptist Church (the city’s oldest African-American church), reminded us to “hate the sin, not the sinner” and to “act from a place of love, not hate.”   Yet for many, finding love, and using it as a guide in the midst of the anger and sadness at what transpired in our city, has been challenging.

I have found the work of our friend and adviser Donna Hicks useful for how to think and how to act with people with whom one profoundly disagrees.   Donna sees being treated with dignity as a universal need. Unfortunately dignity violations are all too common in our world.   She offers examples from her own work in global conflict to illustrate how we can acknowledge the dignity, which she defines as the inherent value and worth in all people, even those who may have caused grievous harm to others, while not embracing beliefs or values with which we fundamentally disagree.  Acknowledging other’s dignity is different from granting others respect, which must be earned.

These principles of “hating the sin, not the sinner” and “acknowledging people’s inherent dignity” are foundational to any act of peacebuilding or conflict transformation. They define the disposition we must have as we act. Yet each of us must choose when and how will we act, and with whom – only others who are like-minded, or will we also attempt to engage with those who stand in varying degrees of opposition to our beliefs?

In the volatile situation that Charlottesville’s citizens faced, and in the immediate aftermath of the traumatic events, it would likely have been foolish to attempt to start a difficult conversation relating to Confederate monuments, race, history and more with armed protestors. Yet even individuals, such as Charlottesville’s protestors, who profess the most repugnant beliefs are worthy of engagement, though likely not when they are carrying weapons.  Two of the most remarkable stories I’ve heard this year reveal how individual lives can be transformed through dialogue. One storycomes from Daryl Davis, an African-American blues musician who has made it his personal mission to befriend Ku Klux Klan members, and whose efforts have led to dozens leaving the KKK. The other story comes from Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, who left the church and her family after coming into contact online and in person with people who sought to engage her in civil discussion, showed her kindness, and pointed out the inconsistencies in her church’s ideology.  She now works to persuade others to reject extremist ideologies.

Many of us may be hesitant to follow in the footsteps of Davis or those who engaged with Phelps-Roper. Engaging with those whose opinions we find personally abhorrent may be a step too far; we may find ourselves unable to try to walk in the shoes of protestors and understand the root causes of their fears and insecurities.  But there are others whom we could consider reaching out to. Perhaps we might talk with a coworker who viewed the events differently than we did.  Or maybe we might talk with someone who shares our broad perspective, but has a different view about what sort of action the current situations requires.

Here in Charlottesville, the events on August 11th and 12th offer us both a challenge and an opportunity: to initiate or join existing efforts to reach out to people who hold different views from ours.  At this moment, issues that cry for our attention include what to do with our Confederate monuments, the history of racial discrimination in our city and race relations more broadly, concerns regarding police-community relations, and how public safety was handled for the events themselves.

It is becoming cliché to point out that, in the United States, too many Americans tend to live in bubbles. Many of us live in ideological bubbles – we work, socialize or practice our faith only with those who share our opinions and politics. We also may live in media bubbles – choosing news sources that largely confirm our perspectives. While by no means true for all Americans, data suggest that many Americans live in race or class bubbles, rarely coming into more than brief contact with people whose cultural influences, life experiences, financial resources, and opportunities and sense of agency in this world are very different than our own.

Doing what we can to move out of our bubbles can help us establish or deepen relations with others whose experiences are unlike our own, contributing to a fuller understanding of others’ perspectives. Substantive engagement with others can help bridge some of our community’s divides. This conscious act of reaching out and sharing perspectives and experiences is one that peacemakers must follow in their daily lives.

This is not hard, but it takes a conscious effort and commitment. The ideas that follow are practiced by many already. These ideas come from progressive and liberal activists, Republican senators, and religious leaders of every stripe and denomination.

Here are a few simple steps:

  • On a weekly, if not daily, basis, seek out news sources offering alternative viewpoints. Prepare yourself for dialogue with others with differing viewpoints by becoming a student of their perspectives. Hard as it may be, try as best you can to tune into their viewpoints appreciatively, not only critically. Try to separate “signal from noise”:  What legitimate fears, concerns and value commitments might underlie the words and conduct that we rightly consider offensive and impermissible?
  • Identify places where community members gather and are open to all, e.g.  city council meetings, school board meetings, local and national civic associations and activist groups, churches, mosques and synagogues, etc. Go to listen and learn first, and speak second.   As another of our friends and advisors, Herbert Kelman says, “Listen to understand. Speak to be understood.”  Find a place that feels comfortable to you, and make a commitment to attend regularly.
  • If you find yourself in conversation with someone who doesn’t share your views, be curious first, don’t expect to persuade anyone immediately. Keep a lookout for where you may agree, and identify areas where you both may lack facts or understanding. Figure out how you can jointly seek to expand your knowledge and potentially even take action.  For example, pro-life and pro-choice activists have, at times, cooperated on efforts to reduce unwanted pregnancies, thereby avoiding potential abortions. There often are possibilities for collaboration, even across moral divides.
  • Share a meal – perhaps the simplest of all forms of cooperative engagement.  Open your home to those whom you do not know. Hospitality is a time-honored act of community-building that is practiced much more regularly in many other cultures than it tends to be practiced in the U.S. today. Start with those whom you think you are likely to share opinions, if not experience, and build from there.

These simple steps are not likely to change views quickly, if at all. They will, however, expand one’s knowledge base and help build the kind of social bonds that, over time, can strengthen communities.   We can and should remain committed to other forms of action, engagement with political parties and advocacy groups, even as we reach out to others in these ways.

The Peace Appeal will continue to work to create spaces for dialogue among people who hold diverse perspectives, not just in other parts of the world, but also here in the U.S.

The challenge is significant, but the constructive efforts of many already are evident. Our goal must be, whether individually or institutionally, to sustain these efforts beyond the surge of activism that follows traumatic events, so that they may become part of the fabric and rhythm of our lives and communities.


Is Dialogue Enough?

by Jeff Seul

We received many appreciative reactions to Derek Brown’s August 28th reflections on recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, his family’s home.  A few people also questioned whether dialogue is sufficient for promoting change in polarized societies.  What about the role of organized protest, advocacy before legislatures and executive agencies, and even litigation?  Can dialogue really contribute to positive change?

The cause-and-effect relationships among strategies for shifting attitudes and achieving social and political change are complex and notoriously difficult to assess precisely.  When change occurs and endures, it typically follows years of advocacy by, and dialogue among, a broad range of stakeholders.  The path is seldom linear.  Organized protest, legislation, and court decisions all can influence social norms, and vice versa.

The week after the tragic violence in Charlottesville, I joined the counter-rally in Boston (my family’s home city) that was organized in response to the “free speech” rally there that was expected to draw some of the same people and groups who were in Charlottesville to contest removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.  The latter drew scarcely more than 100 people; the former, an estimated 40,000.  The event – which had people on edge due to concerns about more violence, and which was covered live by news outlets around the world – fortunately was largely peaceful, at least in part because of the presence of a sizable contingent of police officers, some of whom skillfully deescalated a small number of violent incidents.  I was there to stand with others against racial discrimination, and because I hoped the event could help restore a measure of confidence in the possibility of (mostly) nonviolent mass protest.

At the Peace Appeal, we realize dialogue is not a panacea.  We know we must have a certain humility about what dialogue can accomplish, and in what timeframe.  We do not advocate “dialogue only,” nor do we think dialogue is guaranteed to be productive.  And, yet, we have seen time-and-again that well-crafted dialogue can transform conflict, dramatically reducing or ending violence and promoting justice.

When other forms of engagement contribute to social change, they almost always contribute by influencing perspectives and sparking productive dialogue somehow, somewhere.  Legislators must engage in dialogue to enact laws.  Panels of appellate judges who decide cases regarding significant social issues engage in dialogue.  The path to changed understandings and social and political realities almost always passes through dialogue.   Our core competency at the Peace Appeal is helping conflict stakeholders engage in more direct, inclusive, constructive, and often very large-scale dialogues.

Is dialogue possible even with people who hold extreme views?  Sometimes.  Many groups perceived by others as extremist have at least some members who are willing to engage in dialogue.  These dialogues can be especially challenging, yet sometimes also especially productive, as we have seen in numerous contexts.  One of our functions as conflict resolution practitioners is to bear witness to the possibility and hope that people with entrenched views – whether on the “right,” the “left,” in-between, or none-of-the-above – will experience a genuine change of heart that renders one more open to others’ perspectives and experiences and more willing to accept and work with others.

We believe it is possible to stand with and for those who are being misjudged or mistreated, and to stand against unjust, derogatory, and harmful perspectives and conduct, without amplifying dynamics that tend to make the transformation of conflict more challenging.  In fact, we not only believe this is possible, we believe it is essential to peacemaking.  It is impossible to seek genuine peace without also seeking justice.

This often requires us to defend the dignity of those being unfairly treated, even as we remain open to the legitimate needs and values, and the forms of injury, neglect and alienation, that may contribute to some extreme perspectives and harmful conduct.  We can try to separate these signals – if and when present – from the harsh noise in which they so often are transmitted, and to use them as entry points for engagement.  As many African American leaders have noted in the wake of Charlottesville, the social and economic dislocation that many white citizens in the United States experience, which is manifest in numerous ways, including a disturbing increase in “deaths of despair,” such as suicides and drug overdoses, deserves attention, alongside the pernicious and persistent problem of racism.

Finally, as peacebuilders, we also must constantly examine, be mindful of, and work to reduce the ways in which we ourselves are implicated in maintaining unjust conditions that breed the conflict we hope to transform.  There is no neutral ground.  We also are embedded in and contribute (however unintentionally) to patterns of racial and gender discrimination, inequality of resources and opportunities, and violence.  Just as social and political dialogue is not enough, our personal efforts to promote dialogue addressing social and political problems are not enough.  Each of us also must continually take steps to become the change we want to see.


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