The Difficulty of Dialogue

As an interviewer I learned early on that an individual sharing a story with me is engaging in a relationship of trust. Trust is a two-way street. The person must trust that I will tell his or her story as truthfully and accurately as possible. I generally was not engaged in investigative or political reporting in which other dynamics come into play.

If an interview is a relationship, however brief, it demands respect for the other person, give-and-take, a basic commitment to truth and a commitment to discover the full context of the individual’s story. I’m probably leaving out some essential components of this relationship, but the point is, communication at this level, if it is to have depth, requires respect and trust. Authentic communication is fundamentally about mutuality.

If I got God
on my side,
what’s a Microsoft?
What’s a Microsoft?
It’s nothing.
–Rev. Ken Hutcherson

This thinking comes about because two stories I’ve been watching are receiving treatment today in major media. One is the conversation between officials at Microsoft and a local pastor who opposes anti-discrimination legislation in Washington state designed to protect the rights of gays and lesbians. He’s outspoken as the quote from the New York Times illustrates. There is no room for dissent, “misbehavior,” or subtlety. It’s apparently his way or the highway.

The story has been reported for several weeks. Microsoft has shifted positions. It is taking a neutral position on the legislation and the pastor claims credit.

A second is the struggle at Corporation for Public Broadcasting, also widely reported, that pits the chairman against some of the executive leadership. He claims liberal bias in program content, a long-standing complaint by the right against PBS and National Public Radio.

In this debate the issue being raised is balanced and objective reporting of all sides. It is, of course, a legitimate concern. What leads one to be slightly suspicious is the partisan environment, the connections to political appointments in government and the use of staff who have had partisan jobs to conduct the content review.

But at the heart of it is the lack of mutuality. The public dialogue today isn’t really a dialogue for some. It’s a shouting match or an exercise in bullying. If we continue down the road we’re on–shouting and bullying–the quality of our community life is damaged, the quality of our national conversation is notched downward to slogans and braggadocio and our ability to live in mutually respectful ways is undermined. What we need is a higher commitment to dialogue.

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