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15 November 1996 | Draft

Creating a Context for More Meaningful Dialogue

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Much dialogue consists of presentations of competing perspectives which are in effect complementary and need to be understood together in a broader and more subtle framework that they together sustain. But when the focus is on any one such perspective, the existence and nature of that broader framework can only be brought into the dialogue by opposing some other perspective. Other than for the discussion of particulars which invite ready consensus, this does not make for an especially satisfactory dialogue process.

The following guidelines endeavour to clarify a pattern of constraints through which more meaningful and fruitful dialogue may prove possible.

Beyond unimaginative tinkering, paradigm hops and risk aversion

Unless the imagination is stretched, it is questionable whether the matter is worth consideration at this time.

Beyond single-factor dependency

It is less than helpful to reduce complex challenges and opportunities to a single problem requiring a single solution following from a single theory based on a single set of values to be acted upon by a single set of organizations -- possibly orchestrated by a single leader claiming special insight.

Beyond dogma and proselytism

Whilst there is a place for articulation of patterns of truth, their coherence should not be used to disguise the existence of alternative patterns deriving from other perspectives or cultures. Efforts to disseminate any one pattern should take account of the learnings from earlier initiatives and their reception. Without doubt concerning the limitations of any position or initiative, there is no opening for dialogue and learning.

Beyond definitional game-playing

Misinformation and disinformation are increasingly used to disguise the degree of inaction or the inappropriateness of any action. There is a tendency to legitimate this by token consultation or spurious research, as well as to block criticism by various forms of denial.

Beyond duality and polarity

Extreme arguments are advanced to counterbalance other extreme positions when the way forward is likely to be associated with some pattern of relationship between both -- whose comprehension is hindered by the dynamics of polarized dialogue

Beyond positivism vs. negativism

There is a case for and against optimistic enthusiasm, just as there is a case for and against concern for constraints and obstacles; both have their place and both need to be challenged in any given context. The appreciation of "what is" needs to be contrasted with an appreciation of "what is not" . There is a place for the via negativa as much as for the via positiva.

Beyond global vs. local

Whilst universals can be usefully striven for, local perspectives should not be demeaned through that process. But equally the local needs to relate to a global framework of appropriate richness. How both are to be reconciled structurally and operationally is a challenge of a higher order which naive approaches to "unity in diversity" cannot effectively encompass through expressions like "holism".

Beyond agreement vs. disagreement

Agreement should not be sought at any price. Nor should the possibility of working with the structural features of disagreement be delayed by naive anticipation of consensus -- especially when lives are at stake.

Beyond present vs. future

Commitments to future action should not be used as a means of avoiding immediate action; but equally action in the present should be undertaken in response to a richer future pattern. Underlying the increasing gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" lies a more fundamental gap. Of a more insidious nature, it is that between the ease of making commitments (personal security, food, health, etc) and the challenges to their fulfilment -- before it is too late for the person or group to whom the promise was made.

But beyond the above constraints, taken separately or together, lies one which is even more fundamental. Each of the constraints can be usefully seen like keys on a musical instrument -- suggesting that each could be used separately or together. It is how they are taken into account (through acceptance or in the breach) that is of greatest importance. It is how they are played off against each other in some dialogic melody that provides the carrier for subtler meaning. Beyond seriousness vs humour, there is a playful sense in which none of them should be taken "seriously" -- as "rules" they are there to be broken, but doing so should be fun. It is only through the most partial polarized positions that the music can be made. But the music of dialogue only flows if this is done with a light and fleeting touch. Persistent use of any single polar position is essentially monotonous.

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