In the recent past, the scope for misunderstanding and conflict to thrive in our societies has grown; in such a scenario having the wisdom to engage in dialogue is imperative. The word ‘dialogue’ is often used in speeches, inter-faith forums, and peace proposals as a way to resolve conflicts and other social issues. What I examine here is the praxis of dialogue, and the question of whether I see it happening. I also emphasise the importance of compassion in dialogue.
I used to feel that dialogue in day-to-day life was a skill that came naturally from one’s wisdom and instinct. However, over the years my perspective has changed and in my own words, “People need to be taught ‘Dialogue’, they need to understand what really constitutes a dialogue and how one can achieve their goals through dialogue. They need to go to a school of dialogue and not merely understand the philosophy of dialogue” (‘Why Dialogue in Praxis’, 2011, fsd.uni-lj.si). This requires trained individuals who truly understand the essence of dialogue to capacitate others to be effective in their dialogue with individuals, groups and society as a whole. Extensive use of dialogue as a term (not so much a concept) has led to a situation where we can be in dialogue with anybody about anything, but with very little change achieved. Dialogue has become a post-modern concept where it is possible to talk, but without consequent action or resultant change in reality. However, while the concept of dialogue has been used widely, if not excessively, praxis has become half-forgotten, and is often considered as a minor concept.
Firstly, it is important to appreciate what people understand by the term dialogue, how they perceive it and how they see it in action, or rather practice, in various circumstances. People often don’t like to be corrected or to be told that this would rather be the appropriate way to behave. This happens even though most of them feel that they are incapable of understanding the circumstances surrounding dialogue and have no guidance to allow them to take part in dialogue. In my experience, while they think they are engaging in dialogue with others, many people actually allow their ego to dominate, and have a self-centred attitude. They have developed a misconception of dialogue by following the philosophies of sages they feel they can connect to and whose words advocate in their favour, and they think that they have done their best, without knowing how poorly they have contributed to any form of meaningful dialogue.
Although dialogue is a universal concept, the term itself needs to be decoded for people to realize what dialogue truly is. Dia- does not mean for ‘two’ but rather ‘through’, and so dialogue translates into a way of ‘talking through’ in order to find the best path or outcome. Praxisis knowledge; not only knowledge of what, why and how to do things, but also the knowledge that we acquire by doing things, changing reality and creating new arrangements. It is a technique rather than knowledge. Praxis should be understood not only as a knowledgeable action but also as an action of knowing – learning through doing and knowing through changing and knowing how to change.
Therefore, when we say ‘dialogue in praxis’, we mean that dialogue should be situated in action. We are not referring to an abstract notion. Thus it ceases to be a mere act of knowing, but becomes a tool of arriving at true action. Being situated in praxis, dialogue becomes determined by context and it becomes involved with the concrete and real issues of everyday life. Thus the dialogue acquires not only locality but also finality. It is not merely talking; it is talking for action’s sake, doing something concrete to achieve the goal of dialogue. Praxis moves from being an adverbial determination to becoming a predicative value since the action is the reason of a dialogue, its end and its creation. It is dialogue that is in action, that is alive and creative. It creates the knowledge of doing (praxis). Praxis is not only about doing but also about knowing how to do, why and what for. The book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, written by Paulo Freire, places a lot of emphasis on dialogue in praxis. It is about practicing what you preach, or in other words, “finding ways to practice what you preach” [i]. We often know our theories, but what people at the grassroots need is action. Thus, re-introducing praxis in the process of dialogue is the way to go further.
A few months ago I became curious about how one can translate what it really means to engage in dialogue to ordinary people, and I found something that directed me and made me confident about my title for advocacy i.e. Dialogue in Praxis. The Masai tribe in Kenya and Northern Tanzania have a practice of helping a person realise that good can win over evil, as we have the potential for both within us. When a person does something wrong, the community surrounds them and places them in the centre and tells the person about all the good that they have done or all their good qualities. The aim of this is to strengthen the person to win over evil by reminding them of their goodness. This is an important example of dialogue because it involves individuals coming together to achieve the betterment of both themselves and their community through speech. Likewise, there are many indigenous communities who demonstrate these values of dialogue in their culture. Prophets and philosophers, people who were known as wise, often used techniques to translate the essence of dialogue through demonstrations which would be cognitive as well as speaking to the hearts of people. When one is preparing to initiate dialogue, the receiver must be equally prepared to absorb the message one is sending and to consider it using wisdom and compassion. One has to understand that there is no right or wrong in dialogue: it is all about attempting to reach a mutually-beneficial resolution in light of the present circumstances, and that can only happen when the heart is compassionate and forgiving. I am constantly searching for ways to ensure that dialogue in praxis is truly lived, and this is something that we must all do to if we want to see the full benefits that dialogue can bring.
[i] Taken from ‘Dialogue in Praxis’ – A Social Work International Journal.