Monday, July 25, 2016

The formidable gamble of dialogue


As I prepare to speak at this week's interfaith event in Hickory, I'm reading and reflecting on both the need for interfaith dialogue and cooperation - and the limitations. On the latter, here's an interesting topical piece by Wendy Wall, an associate professor of 20th century American history. She points out parallels between now and the 1930s and 1940s when “unity” campaigns emerged in response to "political rancor, social division and the threat posed by 'alien' ideologies" which "sparked widespread unease." While encouraging Americans to unite around shared values these efforts, according to Wall, merely provided a "veneer of unity" which "concealed a behind-the-scenes contest over America’s core values" and "often promoted civility rather than real social change."
Such unity-building efforts did help to discredit open prejudice against both religious and racial minorities. For the most part, however, they failed to address the structural inequalities of race and class that have haunted this nation for decades. By marginalizing dissenters and casting all who disrupted national unity as somehow un-American they shored up existing power structures and left intact the social and economic status quo.
Zooming out some, here's a thoroughly depressing piece of historical prognostication about how we may be "entering another of those stupid seasons humans impose on themselves at fairly regular intervals" along with yet another uncertain appeal to emotion and another plea to build bridges:
What can we do? Well, again, looking back, probably not much. The liberal intellectuals are always in the minority...The people who see that open societies, being nice to other people, not being racist, not fighting wars, is a better way to live, they generally end up losing these fights. They don’t fight dirty. They are terrible at appealing to the populace. They are less violent, so end up in prisons, camps, and graves. We need to beware not to become divided...we need to avoid getting lost in arguing through facts and logic, and counter the populist messages of passion and anger with our own similar messages. We need to understand and use social media. We need to harness a different fear. Fear of another World War nearly stopped World War 2, but didn’t. We need to avoid our own echo chambers. Trump and Putin supporters don’t read the Guardian, so writing there is just reassuring our friends. We need to find a way to bridge from our closed groups to other closed groups, try to cross the ever widening social divides.
Reflecting on the aftermath of World War II, Albert Camus wrote in Combat, the daily newspaper of the French Resistance, that while "he who bases his hopes on human nature [may be] a fool, he who gives up in the face of circumstances is a coward. And henceforth, the only honorable course will be to stake everything on a formidable gamble: that words are more powerful than munitions." Interfaith dialogue is a necessary but not sufficient part of this formidable gamble in my view. Political dialogue is also needed. But dialogue alone also isn't sufficient. It's just a start...

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