Nowadays, “dialogue” is a touchy word. Some people cringe at it; others embrace it with unrestrained enthusiasm. Still more, as always, remain indifferent. But it seems as though the accumulation of years past have given the term unwanted connotations. People have adopted different views of what dialogue is and how it should be held. In my experience, true, productive dialogue is difficult to come by in the public forum, which is a shame. I hope that the principles of proper dialogue will once again be recovered, and productive conversations can be held, that we as human persons may move further ahead in the continual discovery of Truth.
As with any debate, lecture, or technical discussion, one must first define terms. What is dialogue? According to the Oxford dictionary, dialogue is “conversation between two or more people.” Synonyms include communication, discourse, conversation, and talk. It would seem that the word’s meaning is fairly straightforward and putting it into practice would be hard to mess up. After all, one has only to speak with another, and thus, dialogue. However, the fallibility of our fallen human nature often leads us to misunderstand the simplest of concepts and remain completely unaware. Or perhaps we are more often aware of our intentional misdeeds and commit them anyways… but that is a discussion for another day.
So, dialogue can be done badly. We’ve seen examples of horrible instances of “dialogue” throughout contemporary history, particularly within the Church. I witness bad dialogue online, in stores, in interactions I have with others, and in my own speech. Bad dialogue leads to misunderstandings, false information, and overall negative consequences. It leads to unwarranted division and overt prejudice.
There are a few ways bad dialogue can take place. One way is where one party goes above and beyond to appear welcoming to the other party, so much so that they bend their morals or traditions to pave the way for acceptance. Another word for this is the second millennium cultural idea of tolerance, or the unrestricted harboring of ideology and toxic practices for the sake of communion. When this occurs, the submissive party has shown the other party that everything they stand for isn’t worth looking into. It shouts, “What I have is useless, what you have is better.” Not to mention, the occasional sacrilege or idolatry may slip in. At this point, good dialogue cannot take place because there is no real discussion or conflict; there is only “acceptance.” Thus, no progress can be made, and proper communication is stunted.
A second way is when one of the parties is completely closed off to the other. In other words, they are unwilling to hear what the other party has to say. This is a terrible practice for many reasons. It makes the bigoted party appear very prideful, and it logically follows that all that they treasure is for stuck-up people. This is one of (but certainly not the greatest) reasons the Catholic Church is deemed “intolerant” (intolerance is not a vice; in reality, tolerance is the vice. I will write a succeeding article on this issue); some prideful Catholics do not know how to engage in discussion of other peoples’ opinions and worldviews even if they’re wrong. Being closed off to what another has to say will only cause the rejected person to rebel against all that the person stands for. True dialogue involves at least two parties having a civilized discussion, not one party constantly yelling at the other or not listening to anything they say. And another way this mode of improper dialogue is practiced is when the bigoted party immediately judges the speech of the other, as if that party knew everything there is to know about what the other person is saying. This is anti-charity, and is another reason (again, not the primary reason) why Catholics get a bad reputation in the secular forum. It is also inappropriate to make jokes with the sole intent of humiliating the other party and thus dismissing anything they say as purely comedic in substance.
The third and final way I have observed dialogue can be more harm than good is if one of the parties is relativistic in the discussion. What I mean by this is the party is unwilling to actively engage with the other person in that there is no conflict and thus no productivity. An example of this would be if a theist talked with an agnostic and did an outstanding job of relating St. Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs, and the agnostic understood, but then proceeded to say, “I’m happy you’ve found your truth, and I also have my own truth.” This is a blatant roadblock to a good, solid dialogue. We’ve all had those conversations with someone who listens but then doesn’t really respond with any sort of interest; it’s annoying, and it feels like you’re talking to a brick wall.
These improper methods of approaching dialogue are prevalent in society. Dare I say that far left and far right people frequently fall into one of if not all of these habits. These vices are anti-charity, and really stem from pride, the capital sin. Reform of these habits inevitably comes with a good dose of humility, something every one of us needs. It also requires an increase in the virtues of prudence and justice, but most importantly charity. In a few words, the remedy is prayer and fasting.
Now that I’ve discussed ways dialogue can be done poorly, it is time to describe the nature of good dialogue.
The first step to foster dialogue is creating the proper environment. This includes recognizing you aren’t perfect and adopting an overall attitude of humility. Secondly, you must define terms, if necessary. It is difficult to get the story straight if both parties are on two different pages! Thirdly, both parties must be open to learning something, and, if the pursuit of truth demands it, to changing their positions if given sufficient evidence. But this does not mean you should disregard your beliefs as negligible or lacking security; on the contrary, you should stand firm and be ready to defend your positions.
Engaging dialogue involves a sharing of ideas and a subsequent exchange of thoughts proceeding from those ideas. Facts may be given, judgments may be made, opinions revealed, etc., but they should all be relevant to the subject matter. Both parties should stay close to their traditions with sufficient reason and not bend their morals to be inclusive. In a good dialogue, disagreements are almost inevitable, but also necessary. When conflict is encountered, parties must not let their emotions hijack their speech in order to remain rational; they must identify the exact location of clash and move forward with the conversation. Well-mannered dialogue will draw the parties closer to each other, not drive them away. Formality is needed, but also with scattered informalities too that provide a lightheartedness to a potentially somber mood. It is with these presuppositions that I believe the value of a dialogue may be measured by the maturity and charisma of the parties involved.
Having said this, I hope we can all learn something from each other that we hadn’t known before. I hope we can grow in relationship with one another. Dialogue often gives birth to lasting friendships, something this world is in great need of. While there is probably little hope of having the word restored to its pre-to-mid 1900's normalcy, “dialogue” isn’t always bad; in fact, it can be quite good if done right.