Moving Beyond a Call for “Dialogue”

public dialogueIn the tumultuous days since Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, we have witnessed a wide range of reactions, responses, and coping strategies. Some have been physical in the form of protests or even violence; many have been vocal in the form of speeches, articles, or punditry; and more than a handful have called for, among other things, increased dialogue.

We have heard these calls for dialogue before, especially with regard to race in America. Because it seems to be the go-to option for advocates of peace and nonviolence, and amid some pessimism that real change will occur in Ferguson, it is worth imagining what such “dialogue” would actually look like if put into practice. Many people might think of a dialogue as members of both “sides” of the issue sitting down together to talk about what happened in Ferguson and, perhaps, race relations in the United States more generally.

My fear is that this type of effort, while well-intentioned, would go in one of two potential unhelpful directions. One possibility is that individuals would make statements that others in the room might experience as intentionally hurtful and inflammatory; tempers might then flare, shouting matches might ensue, and members of the dialogue would leave the session feeling even more alienated from one another. On the other end of the spectrum, the opportunity to engage with opposing views might prove to be too much pressure and discomfort for participants, and what could have been a constructive dialogue would revert to niceties, politeness, and, ultimately, avoidance of the heart of the issues. Such a session might feel, to many participants, like a waste of time.

The problem with calling for “dialogue” alone is that putting people together in a room is simply not enough. Most Americans simply lack the skills for talking about difficult subjects, such as race relations, in a way that both expresses their own opinions and narratives while simultaneously engaging deeply with those who represent different or even opposing worldviews and experiences. Building skills for having challenging, emotionally-fraught conversations where identity and partisan perceptions are in play has been long-ignored in most schools, including law schools; the traditional message to law students has been that resolving disagreements with others involves engaging in “winner-takes-all” debates or litigation. There is a collective lack of training and capacity for engaging disagreement. A recent MTV study showed that Millennials have a hard time talking about race and discrimination simply because they have no idea how to do it well. Avoiding these disagreements is easy. Engaging them takes courage, made more complicated by the lack of direction on how to engage effectively.

Over the past two years, I have developed a new law school course called The Lawyer as Facilitator workshop, aimed at training students in facilitation skills, including how to lead dialogues on challenging and controversial topics that raise points of difference. To explore these differences, we encourage our students to acknowledge that hurtful statements might indeed be made; that provocation is not necessarily a dirty word; and that we are all capable of being more forgiving towards one another.

As long as we continue to handle disagreements and strong emotions poorly, we will fail to build relationships that are more than one mistake deep. When it comes to more productive dialogue, the first step in a new and different direction is to acknowledge that in the course of trying to articulate our complex feelings on difficult issues, we will all make mistakes. We need to create conversation containers that expect mistakes so that when dialogues do occur, the result is neither a room ready to boil over in violence nor a polite, avoidant interaction. The challenge to all of us—starting today and moving forward to a better future for race relations in the U.S.—is to push ourselves past our own kneejerk reactions to disagreement (whether that be unproductive accusation, anger, or avoidance), and towards an exploration and embrace of differences. This may not build a consensus on the issues—indeed, it probably won’t; nor should consensus necessarily be the goal at all. But it’s just possible that if we improve our ability to really talk about difficult topics, we may also find that we can more skillfully and more peacefully handle the challenges that our differences present.

Robert C. Bordone ’97 is the Thaddeus R. Beal Clinical Professor and the Founding Director of the HNMCP.
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