Daydreams: When an institution becomes a community: Opening a line of communication between the debaters and the dialoguers

Posted by Rick Chrisman

I have a riddle for you.  It's World War II.  As battle raged overhead and depth charges were being dropped on all sides of them, why couldn't the two U.S. submarine officers communicate with one another? Because they were in two different submarines!  Submarines, you may already know, cannot communicate directly with one another (salt water's low conductivity precludes it). 

From where I sit, not that anybody asked, it looks to me like the Skidmore News Editor-in-chief and the aggrieved Skidmore students are in two different submarines, in effect operating from differing air-tight assumptions. Try as they might, although each acknowledges the reality of the war surrounding them, they manifestly can't get their point across to the other. Until they recognize the source of their (at present bitter) conflict, they will not come to an understanding.

Their differences derive, I believe, from the dichotomy in human society between two distinct spheres of life. The distinction, not recognized by either party so far, lies in two specific words they use when the students call for dialogue and the Editor calls for debate. Each is an act of communication characteristic of two different realms, namely, the private and the public realms—and never the twain shall meet.  It just isn't in the cards; they are different animals.

Dialogue belongs to the private realm, being a conversation, a thoughtful exchange between two or more people. Often, but not always, dialogue is a function limited to small groups and social intimates. It has no goal other than the communication itself, the sharing of a personal experience or an insight, or the attainment of the bond that results from a mutual airing of differences. It has relevance in business and political settings, too. But it is personhood, not persuasion, that chiefly characterizes dialogue. Such was the outcome sought at the Interrupt Silence meeting last Wednesday night, I gather.

By contrast, the debate that the Editor is calling for is an entirely different sort of discourse. Despite connotations of contentiousness and controversy, the essence of debate is a public deliberation over the truth of a certain proposition or course of action.  The challenge of articulating our views in public leads to greater clarity of thought and to the fulfillment of our true visions. The Editor wants, in his own words, "a rigorous, deliberative atmosphere on campus." Here the desired emphasis is the opposite of dialogue; it's on persuasion, not personhood, and the venue for that is a forum where issues can be debated and a new course of action set.  

Fair enough. For whatever reason, the Editor values the experience of public discussion of issues over the sharing which occurs in dialogues. That is his preference. By the same token, for their personal reasons, the students prefer the dialogue as a setting for airing their grievances.  But people shouldn't expect the private setting to meet the goals of a public event, or vice versa. The Editor makes a mistake when expecting dialogues to be other than—well, dialogues. And the students are mistaken when they haven't recognized that the next step after dialogue is to bring their grievances to the level of a community arena where they can be deliberated upon publicly. Each has an indispensable place in the process, but they are not at all the same thing.

There is a point at which the private sharing of feelings needs to evolve into a public discussion of issues. But this does not happen automatically. At some point, a solidarity meeting has to draw some conclusions and decide who to approach about making changes in the environment. Then, at the moment they bring this issue to the institutional authority, it becomes a public discussion. In the meantime, dialogue should not be disparaged. This is the common route of progress.

However, it can also progress southward, as the emotionally damaging exchanges so far demonstrate. The bitterness of the conflict is something to be deplored as very unfortunate—and unnecessary. By my analysis, it is a direct result of all parties indulging in the written expression, which is public expression, of undigested opining way outside of the private boundaries of our minds and living rooms. Casting aspersions and attributing motivations to people, some done under cover of anonymity, constituted a high percentage of this communication.

Neither dialogue nor debate need entail such antagonism. The virtue common to both private and public discourse is listening, and better still, deep listening. Actually, it turns out, both our Editor and the students want to break the Silence and have people speak in a safe environment. But then, everyone also has to be prepared to listen. It signals that you are inviting someone into public friendship (as distinct from "friending" someone). I think what we really want is not so much to "belong" to an institution as to belong to each other in this significant way.  That's what I want, anyway. And I believe we can. That's when an institution becomes a community.

Letter: Why dialogue may be more productive

Blurbs Overheard! Mar. 5