Letter: Dialogue and Decision Making - Finding a Middle Ground

Posted by Warren Bianchi

Dear Editor,

The issue of dialogue and its relation to policy is one that I am hesitant to approach. The evils of oppression, marginalization and discrimination, I confess, have not been as pressing in my life as in the lives of some members of the Skidmore community.  Therefore, I will not take it as my task here to critique the value of dialogue per se, but only to offer some suggestions regarding it's functional value vis-à-vis the culture of debate, policy making and legislation at Skidmore.

Let's begin by looking at Mr. James' critique of dialogue culture, or what he calls quite aptly, "hard multiculturalism." The danger, it seems, is that by granting each perspective equal validity and equal worth, we fail to make meaningful commitments to any values as a community. This is the relativism of which Mr. James warns us. By granting every perspective equal worth, in other words, we run the risk of undermining each perspective's claim to truth; it is simply a perspectival truth — an equally valid way of seeing things. Justice, which needs a concrete normative basis, is thus forsaken in the name of openness — tolerance.

I'm not sure, however, if this accurately captures the proper function of dialogue, nor the results thereof. It is simply not the case that, through a variety of disparate narratives, we succeed only in cultivating a moral stalemate. It is not necessary to employ logic or reason to be persuasive or to move toward an enlightened (or more enlightened) community sentiment. The function of dialogue can be understood, in my opinion, to be a forum in which an intersubjective understanding of intricate and often abstract phenomena can be cultivated through abandoning the emphasis on pragmatic ramifications, logical reasoning and power relations characteristic of debate culture.

In this sense, it is a gross generalization to dismiss dialogues as feel-good, relativist soapbox events. Rather, dialogue is a technique of broadening community understanding that includes factors often overlooked in the regular political process — namely, experience and appeals to emotions that do not fit neatly into the rational rubric of debate. But perhaps this is precisely where Mr. James' argument holds value. Is it fair to equate the non-binding process of dialogue to the concrete ramifications of political debate and policy implementation? Is it appropriate, in other words, to present dialogue as a place to "make the change we want to see," as SGA has done? Perhaps we should not be critiquing the value of either dialogue or political debate. This may result, as I fear it has, in a polarization of the issue into a camp of dialoguers versus a camp of debaters. As each side becomes more entrenched and defensive, it will be harder to make any significant progress.

Instead, we perhaps ought to re-evaluate the understanding of dialogue's function with regards to debate, and vice versa. Instead of conflating the two — community awareness broadening and political decision-making — we should appreciate the value of these two techniques as dyadic elements of governance at Skidmore. The value of dialogue I have discussed above, and as for debate, well, we need a pragmatic process that produces rules and regulations in order to see to the realization of community sentiment. In this sense, it is not that we need more debate instead of dialogue, but rather that we need to discern the appropriate scope of each. Debate can't be neutral in the way dialogue can, but it can be informed by open, tolerant discussion that fosters a community approach to what action should look like arising from dialogue.

In this sense, dialogue has value in its neutrality, in its openness to the realities of experience and narratives. Debate is valuable insofar as it is the concrete decision-making process that the understandings cultivated through dialogue ought to inform if Skidmore's government institutions are, in fact, democratic. But how can we ensure this link? How can dialogue be inextricably bound to its educative function for decision-making?

A solution could come in the form of an open, tolerant public sphere that informs a neutral political culture or political process (to borrow these ideas from Jürgen Habermas, political philosopher and social theorist). In this sense, the revival of the debate culture that Mr. James calls for in his article "Friendly Fire: Live and Let Dialogue Part II" could be subsumed by this tolerant arena for public discourse. The format of this type of debate need not be the end-all of decision-making. But it does have an undeniable place in any pluralist public sphere. Mr. James is right, after all, to point out that even critical views must be included in any truly open and tolerant society. Our representatives in SGA or other embodiments of the ‘neutral political culture' must, then, do their best to align what works with the public sentiment cultivated in an atmosphere of dialogical narrative expositions and debate. Surely, there is debate at the level of SGA or any legitimate decision-making body, but it need not be framed in terms of competing ideologies. Their debate should be over how to most effectively represent community sentiments and reconcile interests with an eye to pragmatic efficiency.  In this sense, the SGA's involvement with dialogue is a good thing, and the members have been doing a great job with hosting and attending them! So long as they don't expect concrete, binding conclusions from them, but rather a basis on which truly democratic conclusions can be reached —that is, conclusions that reflect the trust a true democracy has in its citizenry (its demos) in determining to what end government ought to strive.

The final piece of this puzzle, as I see it, is participation. The one thing that Mr. James' critics cannot deny him is his dutiful commitment to our community. If we want the governmental bodies at Skidmore to be informed of our wishes and various interests, we must get out there and make them heard. In the final analysis, it is indeed a matter of speaking out and taking action — a quality that appears scarce on this campus of late. This is where Mr. James and SGA can agree. We need to break the silence, both with narratives and criticism, but we also need to ascertain the scope and functions of dialogue, debate and our political institutions.


Warren Bianchi

Class of 2012

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