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The dialogical imperative

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, April 11, 2005

When I entered this university as a freshman, I initially enrolled as a joint theology and philosophy major. My rationale (which was needed to assuage my perplexed parents) was that as a senior in high school, I had already begun to unravel the deep and profound mysteries of Creation, and I was confident that these disciplines would allow me to finish that task in my four years away at college.

Well, four years later, I sit here “knowing” a lot less than when I first sat in a classroom beneath the Golden Dome. As a freshman, I found Kant’s assertion of a categorical imperative – that moral law derived from human reason that obligates certain acts – to be compelling. As a senior, after thousands of classes, debates, protests and papers, I’m much closer to arguing for a dialogical imperative. That is, all I know is that I have a lot more to learn, and the best way to learn it is through dialogue with others. While this may seem like a weak conclusion to my Notre Dame academic experience, I believe it actually has much to offer our results-oriented society.

This became further clear to me on Saturday, when an experiment in dialogue took place at the Common Ground Forum. Leaders from student organizations and publications with perspectives that span the political spectrum came together for an afternoon of discussing the roots and intersections of their values. Participants heard numerous diverse faculty perspectives on personal and political values, and then spent time discussing amongst themselves. Right to Life students engaged gay rights activists, and Irish Rover editors met Common Sense writers.

What emerged from these conversations were several consensuses. First, we gain much more through discussing with individuals who see things differently than we do than from discussing with those who already agree. Our biases are pointed out and the weaknesses in our positions brought to light. Further-more, as a psychology professor briefly presented, it is cognitive dissonance that catalyzes moral development. That means that it is precisely disagreement and conflict that bring growth.

Second, dialogue is both means and ends. In our society, the importance in political processes is placed on the end result. Do we go to war or not? Should wealthy people pay more taxes or less? The centrality of questions such as these plays on adherence to ideology instead of into a dialogical process.

These polarizing debates pull us into extremes and push us to invalidate each other rather, rather than calling us to work together.

As a theology professor expounded at the forum, we are interdependent entities whose well-being is necessarily mutual. We bring to the table our own thoughts and experiences, humbly exchanging them with those of others and forming a social fabric that works for all. The battle is thus fought more in the process than in the results, but in so doing positive results are also guaranteed.

Third, rigid ideology can be destructive. All people have different paths and experiences in life, and to render one’s own experiences as the ultimate authority is more of a mechanism for maintaining a sense of control than it is a genuine discernment of truth.

Moreover, ideological camps and labels can be destructive when not thoughtfully reached. When we place ourselves within them, we avoid thinking through all of their assumptions and implications, a dangerous and subtle form of complacency striking at even the most active individuals. Monikers of “liberal” and “conservative” especially are often ascribed to without any understanding of a philosophical foundation for either (if such even exists in the political arena), and all labels are misleading in that they render a complex individual with layers of experiences and thoughts into the sum of a single category. And wherever we tend to fall in these categories, each of us can find areas of both agreement and disagreement.

While the implications of dialogue-oriented political and social processes could be immense, perhaps the most striking element of the Common Ground Forum was found just in the people present. Abstract categories and labels have prevented me from forming friendships with many others who share a strong desire to improve the world around them and to seek truth with their lives, people who because of their differences perhaps have the most to offer. Hopefully in the future we may become better at bridging those perceived gaps and at working together to find ways to build healthier communities and selves.

Michael Poffenberger is a senior anthropology and peace studies major. He can be contacted at


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.