Ugly dialogue; beautiful dialogue

What is the purpose of dialogue? This is a question that every blogger should ask herself.

Blogs usually allow comments, which is an invitation to dialogue. So every blogger should ask, What do I hope to achieve through dialogue with my readers?

Ugly dialogue:

A lot of the dialogue that goes on in the blogosphere is ugly. People go at it, hammer and tongs, trying to pound each other into submission like heavyweight boxers.

Whether those bloggers have thought about it or not, they view dialogue as an adversarial process. At the end of the dialogue, there will be a winner and a loser. I sure don’t want to be the loser, so I’m going to destroy the other guy’s argument.

Ugly, ugly, ugly! Not least, when atheists and theists meet: too often, each is determined to wound the other, on the assumption that the person who sustains the most wounds loses.

Beautiful dialogue:

Dialogue doesn’t have to be adversarial. As I once explained in a Valentine’s Day post:

Early in our relationship, Mary P. and I came up with a simile. “When we talk,” one of us said, “it’s like we’re building with bricks: I lay a brick, you lay a brick, I lay one, you lay one …. The finished structure is something neither one of us could have built on our own.”

That constructive approach to dialogue is the cornerstone of our relationship.

Constructive dialogue is also my objective as a blogger.

I don’t hesitate to contradict people, because my point of view is as legitimate as the next guy’s. But I believe disagreement should be conducted in a spirit of mutual respect.

Moreover, I believe the goal is to achieve a better understanding of one another. Mutual understanding might, in turn, lead to some modification of our respective positions.

Paul Ricoeur’s perspective on dialogue:

In my recent posts on The God Who May Be (parts one and two), I referred to an interview on the CBC Radio program, Ideas. Here I would like to share an excerpt from that radio program. The interviewer is David Cayley; the interviewee is philosopher Richard Kearney; the topic is, the profound importance of dialogue.

Kearney is describing the perspective of his mentor, Paul Ricoeur. We’re dropping into the interview in the middle, so here’s a brief synopsis to situate you. Ricoeur maintained:

  • that all our knowledge of the world is mediated through stories and symbols;
  • that those stories and symbols must be interpreted;
  • that no individual possesses the one, true interpretation; and
  • therefore, interpretation must take place in community.

You may listen to the audio clip, or read the following transcript.

Kearney edit 1.mp3

Ricoeur recognized the primacy of the imagination. He taught that all meaning is conveyed to us through story and symbol. But he also gave reason its place by his insistence on careful and deliberate interpretation. The symbols by which the imagination speaks in word, image, and story have multiple meanings and none comes precertified as the one true and only meaning.

This does not mean that all interpretations are equal — a point on which Ricoeur was emphatic — but it does argue that only a community of interpreters can find a way to reconcile rival gods, competing mythologies, and warring stories. “The symbol”, Ricoeur famously said, “sets us talking.”

Ricoeur was a wonderful practitioner and mentor of dialogue. His idea was, all philosophy is interpretation, or what he called heremeneutics. … And all words and language have an attachment to metaphor and symbol, so we need to interpret all the time. …

Everything was interpretation, and therefore dialogue, because no one person had the truth. Philosophy was a conflict of interpretations, and a community of interpretations.

And that’s the way he operated his seminars … so we worked actually in a kind of community of interpreters. And there was kind of a trust that nobody has absolute truth here but we all come with something to the table. And the idea was, when you went to the table, D’ou parlez-vous? — “Where do you speak from, where do you come from, what’s your interpretation?”

And then you listen, and you respond, and you learn. And very often there would be kind of an overlapping of different horizons as the conversation took place, and you’d learn from somebody else, and they’d learn from you in this process of kind of multiple and mutual convertability and exchangability of views.

Let me repeat what I said above, for emphasis:  the goal is to achieve a better understanding of one another. Mutual understanding might, in turn, lead to some modification of our respective positions.

That’s the beauty of beautiful dialogue!

(more to come …)


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. whig
    Feb 07, 2007 @ 20:30:57

    I view conversation as a mirroring process, where each participant tries to adopt the terms of the other to communicate. I do use an adversarial technique, because I was raised by an attorney and learned that style of reasoning very well. It is not intended nor should it be understood as a desire to have there be a winner or a loser, but to reveal the positions of all sides so that a reconciliation may be sought.

    Your technique is different, and more personal. I am writing for the unseen audience and not just the immediate participants. Neither of us is right or wrong.


  2. Stephen
    Feb 08, 2007 @ 11:09:16

    I view conversation as a mirroring process, where each participant tries to adopt the terms of the other to communicate.

    Adopting the other person’s terms — that’s a good point. Communication is such a difficult art; we often talk right pass each other, almost like we’re speaking different languages.

    Since your goal isn’t to have a winner and a loser, you aren’t subject to the criticism I made in the post. As I said, I don’t hesitate to contradict people. As long as the dialogue is mutually respectful, and the goal is to increase our understanding of one another, it’s OK to contradict and/or critique the other person’s position.


  3. whig
    Feb 08, 2007 @ 17:57:29

    We manage to communicate by respecting one another’s perspectives, and presenting our own in hopes of it being respected similarly. Constructing a dialogue or any sort of negotiated relationship is related to what’s called an Iterated Prisoners’ Dilemma.


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