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Proper and meaningful dialogue

Gabe Griggs | Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Imagine, for a moment, that you are having a heartfelt conversation with someone whom you love deeply, perhaps a friend or a family member. You believe his actions have become detrimental. Maybe his weekend habits have gotten out of hand, he picked up an addiction or his priorities have shifted for the worst.

These are all difficult topics to address because of the corrective or even chastising nature of the conversation. What can make these conversations easier, though, is that individuals often recognize their own detrimental habits.

When they recognize their own negative behavior, engaging in conversation about it has a higher chance of producing positive results.

Notice, that in this conversation there is a universally understood right and wrong. The conversation is not between two people who disagree on a fundamental level, but between two people who both know the correct path.

Notice, too, that I describe this as “conversation” to describe this scenario instead of “dialogue.” Dialogue, unlike conversation, implies the two people talking disagree on the correct path to follow in solving the problem or in living correctly. We are often encouraged to partake in dialogue rather than conversation, and, this being the case, the nature of dialogue is something to consider in order to understand more fully what the fruits of dialogue might be.

A dialogue, by its nature, is going to involve multiple opposing viewpoints – often two opposing worldviews that have been shaped by years of experience and reasoning. Furthermore, the majority of dialogues involve good-willed interlocutors.
The problem, of course, has to do with the principle of non-contradiction: If these worldviews are at odds (mutually exclusive), then, in most situations, one worldview will be correct or more correct in the aggregate sum than the other.

This fact brings us back to our initial hypothetical conversation in which there is an element of correction. Our dialogue, then, will have two good-willed interlocutors who are trying to correct each other and who both believe that their worldview is the correct one. How, then, are we to bear fruit from dialogue? And, furthermore, what is a true dialogue going to look like?

Regarding the first question, the answer seems to be pretty clear: Dialogue must be carried on with honesty, diligence and charity. Without regard for the truth, a dialogue loses its means of operation and its entire purpose. Without diligence on the part of the interlocutors, no one will be properly informed such that the discussion will be fruitful. Without charity, the dialogue will be stifled by the limitations of language to express meaning and the frailty of reason to hold itself to the highest standards of logical coherence.

To determine what true dialogue looks like, I turn to Pope Benedict’s “Introduction to Christianity”: “No real dialogue yet takes place where men are still only talking about something. The conversation between men comes into its own only when they are trying, no longer to express something, but to express themselves, when dialogue becomes communication.” For Benedict, dialogue is not merely an intellectual endeavor or a skirmish of reason; it is the expression of oneself through communication. This means the value of the dialogue is not necessarily judged by the ability to convert one side or the other, but by the ability to truly communicate oneself to another.

Ultimately, we see true dialogue is communication and expression of oneself. As frustrating as it can be to enter into dialogue and not want to “convert” the other side, we can take solace in knowing that true dialogue is a worthwhile endeavor in and of itself. It does not need to be a means to an end. This may frustrate the logical mind that seeks unity and coherence. We must hope, however, that through the course of true expression of ourselves to others, we may eventually come to agree on the truth of the matter.

Gabe Griggs is a senior in the Program of Liberal Studies. He can be reached at ggriggs@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.