Dialogue and difference

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

The reason why all tyrannies eventually fall is because the world a tyrant wants to live in is fundamentally different from the world that exists. A tyrant longs for a homogenous world, a space where everyone – or at least everyone within his reach – conforms to his ideals, follows his instructions, listens to his voice. It is a world where people march to a singular beat, free of comparisons or external influences.

Such a world does not exist and cannot exist. Our world is one of diversity, from the tiniest of organisms to the cultures of nations. Even within a single family, there can be monumental differences in preferences, in genetics, in lived experiences. Even within our own selves, and in the faces we present to different groups of people, there is variance and difference.

Last Saturday, May 21, was the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development where we celebrate the abundance and richness of the cultures around the world as well as the role of dialogue between and among cultures for achieving peace and sustainable development. It is dialogue that allows diversity to be a source of growth rather than conflict, dialogue that allows us to bridge the gaps between people – between minds.

This is one of the reasons why dialogue, genuine dialogue, is so important to social interaction between human beings, whether it be at the level of maintaining friendships or running a good government.

What are the characteristics of a genuine dialogue? A good starting point would be to contrast it with what is, in a sense, its opposite – a monologue. Linguists have pointed out how monologue is the unnatural language of power and authority, which requires special conditions or rituals to make it possible for one person to speak to many without the possibility of the multitude replying to the speaker. In contrast, dialogue happens naturally, spontaneously, and involves not only speaking but listening, not only stating but replying.

In a dialogue, one enters from a place of equality, not authority. We do not see the other as inferiors, and neither do we see ourselves as inferior. We know that each party has something to bring to the table, something that will enrich the other.

We come into a dialogue from a place of solidarity, an understanding of our common humanity that binds us at a deeper and more fundamental level than our differences.

This doesn’t mean that we minimize our differences, however. We enter a dialogue precisely because our differences are real, because we acknowledge that we come from different perspectives, different contexts and different values. It is because we are different that we can learn something new from each other.

Of course, we can only learn if we listen to each other, if we give space and opportunity for the other to speak and have a voice. Dialogue requires that people not only be free to speak, but that they be unafraid to do so. This does not mean that speech should have no consequences, but they must be commensurate with the speech act, and that the voices of the marginalized and powerless must be nurtured and protected.

The appropriate kind of listening is an active listening, one that seeks to reply transparently rather than remain in stoic silence. A dialogue requires an exchange, a give and take. This means that one must not only hear what one desires to hear, but critically take to heart the words of the other in order that we may respond or offer our own point of view.

Above all, the goal of dialogue should be to reach an understanding of the situation and desires of the other, even if it is an incomplete and imperfect one. It must seek to create or enhance empathy, tolerance and understanding – to change the status quo, even if only internally. It cannot be a mere formality, or a means to simply delay, mislead or obfuscate. Real dialogue is meant to bring people together.

Humans always find it more comfortable to deal with people that are similar to them. It is why it has so often been a tactic to make enemies (or scapegoats) out of those who are superficially different or those who have different practices and beliefs. It is why skin color has been used as a basis for slavery, and why men born of women can be so demeaning to the opposite sex. It is why private matters such as sexual orientation can be used as excuses for public marginalization, and why nations from people of the same ancestry can be incited to go to war.

Our worst tendencies have always come about from seeing difference and diversity as evil and deviant, rather than as simple facts of human existence. No two people will ever be truly like the other, nor will two cultures or two nations. And it is that very diversity that makes us human, and that binds us together, and that makes us strong. You see it in nature, where it is biodiversity that leads to a healthy environment. The same is true for human society as well.

It is long past the time for our society to stop looking for witches to burn or heathens to convert. What we need now is genuine dialogue between different cultures and different viewpoints. Genuine dialogue broadens our perspective on issues of common concern and allows us to gain a better understanding of where different cultures stand on these issues. We may not always come to an agreement, but understanding the cultural context behind certain actions and decisions on global issues and respecting each other’s cultural differences will allow us to move on peacefully.

We are, all of us, human beings. All of us share this single planet, our only home.

Let us talk. Let us listen.

Let us be different yet together.



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