Dialogue is a word often used but perhaps not as often understood. Most people, if asked, would probably use it interchangeably with the words discussion, talks, conversation or debate. Yet the world can all too often witness that political talks or discussions fail to take place. Even when they do, the results are far from encouraging. Conversations, even amongst family and friends, can also lead to strong disagreements and heated arguments. Whilst debate is a practice of communication and argument held up as a virtue, and is practiced in learned institutions and has dominated our parliamentary democratic culture for the past two thousand years; the question is- how effective is it at creating a peaceful world?
One of the very real challenges of modernity’s globalization involves the historical problem of the secular and the religious. Put simplistically, religious views of the world are often founded upon beliefs about the world that cannot be demonstrated to a secularist – in criteria that are acceptable to a secularist. Whilst for the religionist, the secular description or understanding of the world somehow fails to account for the spiritual dimension of human life. This binary division of perspectives is historically understood as the long-standing debate between science and religion. It is basically contesting which method – ‘knowledge’ or ‘faith’ – provides a more accurate understanding or truer description of the world. For religionists, their knowledge is perhaps based on a personal witness or book of revealed wisdom, whereas for scientists (empiricists) or rationalists, it is based upon accumulated observation of the causal processes of the physical world and/or the laws of mathematics. In the final analysis both traditions have sincerely argued for their resulting truths, but history sadly demonstrates this often includes devastatingly violent consequences.
The late quantum physicist Professor David Bohm (1917-1992), understood dialogue as something qualitatively different from discussion or debate. Rather than being interchangeable with discussion/debate, he viewed dialogue more as a corrective to, or something missing in, both. He suggested one reason was that the word discussion had the same etymological root as the word percussion; which meant to break apart. This was almost the opposite of dialogue, which for Bohm meant to create meaning by thinking together. This is because, contrary to the popular understanding; dia of dialogue actually means through (not two), and logue comes from logos or the word. Dialogue then literally means ‘through words’. Bohm further suggested Dialogue was to share and create meaning through words rather than to argue or debate our own truths.
Bohm suggested that what prevents true dialogue is that we can become attached to our opinions or ideas because we experience them as truths. We do this to the point that we often identify ourselves totally with them. Due to this psychological attachment, should someone then challenge our opinions or ideas, we feel as if we are under attack ourselves and thus somehow feel forced to defend ourselves. But we don’t need to do this because often these truths or opinions are something we have casually picked up or heard rather than deeply investigated and explored and if we heard a better opinion we might easily change. The opinion might have been heard on the television or read in a newspaper, but it became ‘our opinion’ and once we identify ourselves with it we are likely to emotionally react to defend it when challenged.
Dialogue is the process of coming to see how our opinions have been formed and how we formed attachments to them. We do this by sharing our opinions with others and thus ‘through words’ share our meanings together. It is not dialogical to try and persuade the other that our opinions are right or true (debate) but this does not mean we cannot hold to our opinions, or have strong opinions. Dialogue explores how we, and others, think and develop our opinions/ truths but in a respectful way. It does not necessarily attempt any particular outcome or version of truth or meaning but rather brings people together to share and understand how we perceive the world and decide what is important for each of us.
Bohm’s own notion of dialogue was informed by his work as a quantum scientist and by what he perceived to be the underlying holistic nature of the physical cosmos. This cosmic wholeness was, he felt, the ground of all individuals and thought, he therefore explored dialogue as a way to bring people together in all of their rich diversity in order to explore their own thinking, their relationships with each other and their deeper nature. For Bohm, the dialogical communicative process (and society) was the goal rather than any particular outcome or ‘truth’. Interestingly ‘communion and community’ also play an important part in many religionists’ vocabulary about the world. Bohm may have suggested that we are often talking about the same important things but get psychologically trapped in attacking and defending how we define and articulate these things.
*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society