How the rescue of a constructive dialogue, respect for the diversity of points of view, cordial disagreement, and openness to questioning can redeem us from polarization
“I am a lover of truth, a worshipper of freedom, a celebrant at the altar of language and purity and tolerance.” Stephen Fry
If you love words and their power to expand consciousness and have turned this interest into a communicator’s craft, you may feel confined in a strange paradox. We’ve never had so many platforms and communication formats. But we have never been less willing to dialogue. We have never engaged in so many policies, programs, and debates on diversity and inclusion – simultaneously, we have never been so exclusionary in the name of inclusion.
We feel collective fatigue concerning what is conventionally called “polarization,” and, at the same time, we are reluctant to recognize ourselves as agents of one of the poles. There is an exhaustion of slogan activism, Manichean thinking, absence of nuance, poor rhetoric, intolerance in the name of tolerance, and arbitrary etiquette that transmutes the meaning of words only to punish and repress sincere questioning and legitimate disagreements. In a world without nuances, you don’t play by ear; you don’t dance without choreography. Spontaneity and free inquiry are harshly moralized and punished. The word, stripped of its emancipating and integrating power, was transformed into the artillery of a moralism that separates “us” from “others”, the good from the bad, the justices from the infidels. As if falsehood and good faith, ignorance and erudition, insensitivity and compassion, injustice and justice do not inhabit each one of us.
It is time to rescue pearls of wisdom that we should never have lost: constructive dialogue, respect for the diversity of perspectives, the art of rhetoric, openness to questioning, and respectful disagreement. To this end, I bring here a compilation of practical tips based on two content repositories committed to building bridges through constructive dialogue: 1) the tool book ‘Construindo Pontes, Derrubando Muros’ (or ‘Building Bridges, Breaking Down Walls’), published by Papo de Homem and Instituto Avon; 2) Heterodox Academy.
Moreover, it is worth remembering that there are tolerance limits and that we are not always emotionally prepared or motivated to exercise communication. Recognizing this predisposition in advance is already a step towards exercising empathy and respect, starting with ourselves. But once the motivations and bias are admitted, an enriching dialogue can be built with the development of competencies, whose practice can be arduous at first but fascinating with practice:
Starting with non-judgmental listening, choosing a time, place, and environment favorable to the conversation, listening to your interlocutor without interrupting them, with genuine curiosity. Avoid judging it, but understand what the story, argument, or perspective are in question, why the topic is so important, the underlying views, and how they can make sense. We must not forget that human beings are not problems to be solved but mysteries to be explored.
Propose your evidence-based perspective, recognizing the difference between evidence-based perspective and mere opinion, articulating data-based, properly citing references and time-honored practices in academia and science whose value stands the test of time.
Knowing, validating, and valuing the other person’s arguments is the first step in clearly defining what is at issue. Ideally, before presenting our position, we should be able to articulate the opposing position in terms acceptable to its proponent, even recognizing the validity and limits of the convergence of views. Thus, we avoid unnecessary noise and bring clarity to the dialogue.
You have to have a natural predisposition. After all, a real conversation presupposes that the interlocutors are predisposed to learn something with humility and good faith. If you think you know everything there is to know and have nothing to learn, you might be better off spending time with a speech in front of the mirror. It is crucial to have the courage to say you don’t know. It’s not about winning or losing; it’s about moving closer to greater knowledge.
The gain lies in the construction, as dialogue is fascinating precisely because it allows us to transcend our limitations by considering other ideas, information, and perspectives. So consider IF and HOW the opposite idea might make sense, trying to outdo the tendency to extremism, to dualism. Recognize when you need a break or when your own emotions tell you to take a break. It is worth saying that it is preferable to continue at another time and ask permission to withdraw.
Yes, it takes courage because in the world of cancellation, taking a public stand on just about any issue has become an act of bravery. But it is imperative to exercise this virtue, as it is our best bet to expose intolerance, the hegemony of ideas and the control of thought, mortal enemies of genuine freedom of expression and diversity of points of view.
Notably, there is no omnipotent recipe for dialogue, as there are no exact formulas for human relationships. But it is worth recognizing when the new orthodoxies imprison us and how we can share and nurture timeless practices of civility and genuine respect for diversity. It is worth it. It’s about the right to be human, in all its complexity.