Toward a vocabulary of transformative dialogue
Gergen, Kenneth J.
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Most of us feel more comfortable in certain groups than others, and indeed find certain people just plain wrong headed or evil - perhaps neo-Nazis, the KKK, the Mafia, terrorist groups. This sense of alterity - distance or separation from particular others - is virtually an inevitable outcome of social life. As we come to generate realities and moralities within specific groups - families, friendships, the workplace, the religious setting - so do our interlocutors become invaluable resources. With their support - either explicit or implicit - we gain the sense of who we are, what is real, and what is right. At the same time, all world constructions and their associated forms of relational life create a devalued exterior - a realm that is not us, not what we believe, not true, not good. In important degree this devaluation derives from the structure of language out of which we construct our realities. Language is essentially a differentiating medium, with every word separating that which is named or indicated from that which is not (absent, contrary). Thus, whenever we declare what is the case or what is good, we use words that privilege certain existents while thrusting the absent and the contrary to the margins. An emphasis on the material basis of reality suppresses or devalues the spiritual; an emphasis on the world as observed subtlety undermines beliefs in the unseen and intuitive, and so on. In effect, for every reality there is alterity. These proposals are all congenial to a view of reality as socially constructed (see Gergen, 1994). The problem of difference is intensified by several ancillary tendencies. First, there is a tendency to avoid those who are different, and particularly when they seem antagonistic to one's way of life. We avoid meetings, conversations, and social gatherings. With less opportunity for interchange, there is secondly a tendency for accounts of the other to become simplified. There are few challenges to one's descriptions and explanations; fewer exceptions are made. Third, with the continuing tendency to explain others' actions in a negative way, there is a movement toward extremity. As we continue to locate "the evil" in the other's actions, there is an accumulation; slowly the other takes on the shape of the inferior, the stupid or the villainous. Social psychologists often speak in this context of "negative stereotyping," that is, rigid and simplified conceptions of the other. All such tendencies lead to social atomization, with the same processes that separate cliques and gangs in adolescence reflected organizationally as tensions between management and workers or line and staff; and at the societal level as conflicts between the political left and right, fundamentalists vs. liberals, gay rights and anti-gays, and pro-choice vs. prolife. And more globally we find similar tendencies separating Jews and Palestinians, Irish Catholics vs. Protestants, Muslims vs. Christians, and so on. On this account tendencies toward division and conflict are normal outgrowths of social interchange. Prejudice is not, then, a manifestation of flawed character - inner rigidities, decomposed cognition, emotional biases, and the like. Rather, so long as we continue the normal process of creating consensus around what is real and good, classes of the undesirable are under production. Wherever there are tendencies toward unity, cohesion, brotherhood, commitment, solidarity, or community, so are the seeds of alterity and conflict sewn. In the present condition, virtually none of us escape from being undesirable to at least one (and probably many) other groups. The major challenge that confronts us, then, is not that of generating warm and cozy communities, conflict-free societies, or a harmonious world order. Rather, given the endemic character of conflict, how do we proceed in such a way that ever emerging antagonism does not yield aggression, oppression, or genocide - in effect, the end of meaning altogether. This challenge is all the more daunting in a world where communication technology allows increasing numbers of groups to organize, mold common identities, set agendas and take action (1). Perhaps the major challenge for the 21st century is how we shall manage to live together on the globe. What resources are available to us in confronting this challenge? At least one important possibility is suggested by the social constructionist posture that frames the above account: if it is through dialogue that the grounds for conflict emerge, then dialogue may be our best option for treating contentious realities. Yet, in spite of the broad significance attached to the term, "dialogue," little is gained by invoking its power. More formally, dialogue is simply "a conversation between two or more persons." And indeed, it is ultimately impossible to distinguish between dialogue and its other, namely monologue. For even monologue is addressed to someone - either present or implied. And even should the recipient remain silent, responses do occur - privately to one's interlocutor or more publicly to concerned others. Thus, to make headway here it is essential to distinguish among specific forms of dialogue. Not all dialogic processes may be useful in reducing the potential for hostility, conflict, and aggression. Indeed conversations dominated by critical exchanges, saber rattling, and contentious demands may only exacerbate the conflict. It is in this context that I wish to put forth the concept and practice of transformative dialogue. Transformative dialogue may be viewed as any form of interchange that succeeds in transforming a relationship between those committed to otherwise separate and antagonistic realities (and their related practices) to one in which common and solidifying realities are under construction.
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