Sunday notes: on compassion, dialogue, and race

Friday’s TED Radio Hour focused on the theme of compassion. The first segment on the show began with CNN columnist and commentator Sally Kohn reading offensive tweets she has received recently. She went on to say:

“It’s like that uncle you might disagree with at the holidays… You might argue politics, but you still love him… You would never say the things to your uncle in person that people say to complete strangers on Twitter… We have to figure out a way to re-learn compassion, and that is ultimately being able to appreciate and validate someone else’s experience, even if it isn’t our own.”

Her segment of the show is embedded below. The full episode is online here.

Earlier this week, Brainpickings featured a longish read by Maria Popova, Legendary Physicist David Bohm on the Paradox of Communication, the Crucial Difference Between Discussion and Dialogue, and What Is Keeping Us from Listening to One Another . In the post, Popova explored Bohm’s On Dialogue.  Although this book was written in 1976, it concerns communication breakdown that we see all too clearly in America forty years later:

“Different groups … are not actually able to listen to each other. As a result, the very attempt to improve communication leads frequently to yet more confusion, and the consequent sense of frustration inclines people ever further toward aggression and violence, rather than toward mutual understanding and trust.”

Popova also highlighted Bohm’s comments that distinguished discussion from dialogue. The latter, she quoted,

” ‘Dialogue’ comes from the Greek word dialogos. Logos means ‘the word,’ or in our case we would think of the “meaning of the word.” And dia means ‘through’ — it doesn’t mean ‘two.’ A dialogue can be among any number of people, not just two. …The picture or image that this derivation suggests is of a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us. This will make possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which may emerge some new understanding. It’s something new, which may not have been in the starting point at all. It’s something creative. And this shared meaning is the ‘glue’ or ‘cement’ that holds people and societies together.

One of the topics Americans have the hardest time talking about is race. Popova’s post also referenced the 1970 dialogue between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead that eventually was published under the title A Rap on Race. (There is a whole series of Brainpickings posts on this subject, which you can read here.)

On a related note, today’s New York Times Sunday Review includes an opinion piece by Demos president Heather C. McGhee, ‘I’m Prejudiced,’ He Said. Then We Kept Talking.

In her piece, she mentioned that Demos is participating in the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) program, was launched by The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) and 130 partner organizations this week. The press release announcing the new initiative stated,

“WKKF believes the stage is set for this pioneering enterprise. The repeated police and civilian killings of unarmed people of color, well-documented bias within our education, health, civic   and justice systems, and escalating divisive rhetoric over religious and ethnic intolerance and immigration policies have created an environment where race and ethnicity are driving our national discourse and fueling anxiety and fear in our communities.”

TRHT will draw on truth and reconciliation models used in other countries around the world. Northeastern University School of Journalism released a report in conjunction with the TRHT launch, Meta-Analysis of Recent Polling Data on the Impact of Racism on American Society Today. The first event of the TRHT multi-year program will be a  National Day of Healing on January 17, 2017.



On the importance of letting people vent

Several years ago, I was chair of a school committee when a crisis came up. It was summertime. School was out. While our whole school committee was well-versed in the situation at hand, I misjudged how much little the larger community knew about the situation. Misinformation filled this gap.

Parents were furious. Community members without kids were angry. In the middle of a particularly contentious community meeting about the situation, one woman told me I was a bad example for children.

There are different ways to deal with this type of situation. One is to dig in your heels and shut down dialogue. That’s it! Time’s up! No more discussion.

This approach works on one level: Protest stops. But people will still be angry, and not just about the original issue. They also will be mad that they haven’t been heard – layering a deep, personal insult on top of everything else.

It was at this point that I learned the value of letting people vent.

Setting aside your own pride and agenda to let people tell you exactly what is on their minds is not the easy way to go. People may end up telling you a lot of uncomfortable things, and you may have to take quite a bit of grief about secondary matters before people get to the underlying problems that are truly bothering them.

It also is not good enough to just sit through this process, waiting for it to be over. You have to be willing to actually hear the feedback, absorb it, and learn from it.

Why go through all this pain?

Listening deeply to others who may not agree with you is the only way to get past division to dialogue, a point of compromise, mutually acceptable outcomes, and a sense that we are all in this thing together.



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