About a year ago I posted a note with concerns about the difficulty of engaging people different from ourselves in real dialogue.
As the events of the year have unfolded, such concerns have only grown. We hear of political labels becoming a key determinant of social interaction. We see more shouting across viewpoints on immigration, on racial/ethnic/cultural differences, and on socioeconomic inequalities. Much discussion appears to be structured to present only two opposing viewpoints rather than a myriad of opinions.
True dialogue requires careful listening. Listening requires a modicum of respect for others, regardless of their viewpoint. The reiteration and refinement of the Georgetown commitment to free speech asserts that the university needs to be a place where alternative viewpoints must be presented. Such an environment is one of the essential conditions for learning and knowledge refinement. The commitment is heavily driven by a rational approach, despite the fact that much of what we see in the world today is driven by an emotional approach. Somehow, we need to learn how to navigate between cognition and emotion in new ways these days.
In that regard, I continue to read more and more about “just plain folks” taking initiative to achieve such goals. A recent one was Tom Friedman’s column describing a community pushing for its own revival. There, a group of committed residents, none of them elected officials, learned they all shared concerns about the demise of the town center, following the departure of a large employer. The shared concerns existed side-by-side with opposing viewpoints on other issues. Friday meetings in one person’s house became the locus to identify the shared concerns and galvanize energy to take action. They themselves took responsibility for identifying and implementing solutions. They apparently ruled out blaming “the other guy.”
This piece is one of many pointing out that at the local community level, there may be a new spirit of community-building and working together – a movement that you can’t easily see focusing solely on the national scene. Some assert a causal connection. The chaos at the global and national level is itself the impetus to coming together at the local level. People, never before socially active, are becoming so. Wouldn’t it be ironic if we came out of this period with stronger communities that discovered ways to engage differences, despite the fact that there was no modeling of this behavior at the national level?
The fascinating, and challenging, aspect of these stories is that they force each of us to think about what we ourselves are doing, to reach out and engage the other. What am I doing to find common ground with those who don’t look like me, don’t inhabit my usual spaces, don’t share many of my interests, but who are part of the larger community I inhabit? That’s an observation a little tougher than observing with admiring eyes the work of others who are coming together in common purpose.