Before I get into my topic more fully, I would like to share a quote from Martin Buber.
Genuine conversation, and therefore, every actual fulfillment and relationship between men, means acceptance of otherness… Everything depends, as far as human life is concerned, on whether each thinks of the other as the one he is, whether each, that is, with all his desire to influence the other, nevertheless unreservedly accepts and confirms him in his being this man and in his being made in this particular way.Marin Buber, Knowledge of Man: Selected Essays (Humanity Books, 1998), 59. Quoted by Mordechai Gordon “Listening as Embracing the Other: Martin Buber’s Philosphy of Dialogue” Education Theory. Vol. 61, No. 2 (2011) University of Illinois
I am going to relay a story very vaguely. An old friend of mine (only have communicated in the last 30 years on FB) posted a mildly humorous political joke that was presumably slightly pro-conservative (in terms of American politics) by poking light fun at pro-liberals (again, in terms of American politics). I had no real problem with it. I don’t ascribe to any particular American political ideology. But then something interesting happened. One person (who sounded strangely like me… at least in this comment) said something about the two sides should really get together and talk things out. My old friend went ballistic about that. It seemed to be an odd thing comment to get so heated about it. My old friend went into something of the sort… “Where did positive dialogue happen back in _______ when THEY __________!!!!”
That was so strange. But on reflection, it wasn’t so strange. This is a very human reaction. People don’t like to have conversations with people of different perspectives. People like to have “face moves on” (of “to dunk on”) people of other perspectives… or more likely, listen to others who like to use rhetoric to make others look bad. In the case of my friend, he essentially said that he did not want to have a healthy conversation with people of a different perspective because people of that group did “bad stuff” in the past. Curiously, the bad stuff was no more bad that people in his own camp have done at different times. Part of me wants to say that that is not logical… it is not rational. However, people aren’t really rational— and that is okay. We are emotional beings. That is good, but there are risks. Blood feuds have lasted, in some places, for years… even centuries… where each side blames the other for past crimes that their own side had done just as much.
It is not a good look (especially for Christians) when it comes to interreligious communication. But it is probably NEVER a good look. Even the most wrongheaded person is right some of the time. And even the most rightheaded person is wrong some of the time (a LOT of the time).
So what gives genuine conversation? Looking at Buber,
- Acceptance of otherness. The other person is not a stereotype… a strawman caricature. The other person is not a demon. In fact, if they believe things from you, it probably comes from a good place not bad. They believe their beliefs are correct and beneficial. They probably are not comic book villains who do things “to perpetuate evil” (at least from their own perspective). Thanos (the movie incarnation of the character at least) thought he was doing things to perpetuate good (even if his plan was pretty stupid).
- Accept their desire of others to influence. People believe they are right and that if others shared their views, the world would be at least slightly better. In other words, USUALLY people want to influence others, and this desire comes from a good place, not a bad place. If one can accept that the motives of the other are probably good.
- Act Intentionally. To unreservedly accept and confirm the other doesn’t happen naturally. It must be done intentionally. One must choose to override one’s natural tendency to dehumanize (demonize, move from I-you to I-it) others, and accept that different perspectives may come from good motives.
- Recognize our Mutual Crappiness. Despite the fact that most of us may have good motives behind our disparate beliefs, our tendency to demonize those we disagree with, and tendency to think that others have bad motives behind their differences—- well, that is pretty crappy. But if we all tend to do this, then we are mutually crappy. Knowing this can also help us break down barriers— we share a common struggle. Our conflict with others, is first of all a conflict within ourselves.