Dialogue Theories: Is Dialogue About Proving Others Wrong? What Dialogue Is Not About

Dialogue, whether it is understood as a group activity or a process, is not a means to prove one opinion’s superiority over others, and should not be understood as such. Instead, it is a conversation that essentially consists of meaningful interaction that does not ignore differences, but respects them. According to the physicist and philosopher David Bohm, dialogue does not deny the contrasting values of the participants who engage in dialogue; rather, the contrasting values that people bring with them are at the heart of dialogue. 1

This is where dialogue and ordinary discussion differs. In Bohm’s view, what makes dialogue and discussion different is that in an ordinary discussion the discussants hold relatively fixed positions, and while discussing their own views, they try to convince others to change.2 What makes this activity so different from dialogue is that it only generates confrontation and distrust among the participants. Another possible consequence of such interaction is the total avoidance of sensitive issues, which is itself a result of distrust among participants who are trying to prove their own position and prove others wrong. Bohm holds that both of these results are extremely harmful because they obstruct a ‘free play of thought’ among participants and hinder creative thinking.3

Dialogue, then, is not about a group of disparate people saying the same things, nor is it about proving the superiority of one group over another. Gürkan Çelik makes the point that the respect for diversity that is rooted in the Sufi tradition, propounded by such Muslim intellectuals and practitioners of Sufi spirituality as Ghazali and Rumi, is also directly related and intertwined with dialogue.4 Çelik refers to other prominent scholars to argue that dialogue, while not denying contrasting values and worldviews, is based on our common humanity. The contemporary Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen says that ‘we are human first and foremost and then Muslim’, and stresses that regardless of our individual belief and religion we are human beings who share similar concerns that stem from our similarities and differences as the human race.5

While acknowledging differences is important once we have entered dialogue, in order to start a dialogue it is equally important to see commonalities. These similarities are reflected in common values, and in dialogue these values are love, compassion, tolerance and forgiveness,6 values that are upheld by most if not all faith traditions. These common values are integral to dialogue—given that dialogue is about mutual understanding and recognizing differences without distrust and animosity.

If dialogue is to avoid creating animosity between people, then it must be about fostering cohesion and social harmony. So dialogue is indispensable in the same way that social cohesion is indispensable in a sustainable society, and the former is the guarantee of the latter: without dialogue there is no chance of maintaining social cohesion. Thus, it must be understood that what is to be gained from ‘intercultural dialogue’ is not the superiority or domination of one group or culture over the other, but rather, dialogue is the only viable route towards ‘dispute resolution, social mediation, and peaceful coexistence’ in the contemporary world.7

Dialogue is also not about being reactive. In fact, having presumptions and prejudices is natural, given that people engaged in dialogue come from different cultural backgrounds and have different ways of thinking. So, more often than not, people voice their assumptions and prejudices in a reactive way.8 However, as Bohm says, ‘[i]f we defend opinions in this way, we are not going to be able to have a dialogue’. So, being reactionary and defending one’s own views in an almost silencing manner is far from the ideal in dialogue. If we do this, we might find ourselves in a position that perfectly describes what dialogue is not about: ‘We just feel that something is so true that we cannot avoid trying to convince this stupid person how wrong he is to disagree with us’.9

Finally, dialogue necessitates that people who are engaged in it should be able to respect other people’s viewpoints and disagreeable views without confrontation. As a result of the dialogue process, we should be able to explore viewpoints that they do not adhere to. This can lead us to acknowledging the ‘plurality of points of view’ that we hold, without reverting to evasion or anger, both of which are detrimental to dialogue outcomes.

[1] Bohm, On Dialogue, p. xvii.

[2] Bohm, The Essential David Bohm, p. 295.

[3] Bohm, The Essential David Bohm, p. 295.

[4] Çelik, Building Social Cohesion through Dialogue and Education, p. 295.

[5] Çelik, Building Social Cohesion, p. 141.

[6] Çelik, Building Social Cohesion, p. 142.

[7] Çelik, Building Social Cohesion, p. 186.

[8] Bohm, The Essential David Bohm, p. 307.

[9] Bohm, The Essential David Bohm, p. 307.

*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society

Dr Omer Sener

Research Fellow, Dialogue Society London Branch

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