When groups with differing paradigms come together to engage in direct contact, the resulting clash is horrendous, destructive, charged with emotions. The Proud Boys in Portland, Antifa in Berkeley, an 85-year-old protester beaten up outside a Planned Parenthood in San Francisco, a boy in DC who had the nerve to smile at a Native American with a drum–the list goes on. I’ve seen some myself: an old man mocked and bullied for wearing an NRA hat at a Vons in Santa Monica (how dare he!), a girl kicked by fellow students while studying in a lobby during the 2016 election.
We have a clear image of protesters and counter-protesters meeting only to shout past each other. But none of these cases properly represent direct contact between groups with differing paradigms.
These stories get picked up in the media for their sensationalism, and the media’s reporting of these stories become the standard narrative that frames our conception of direct dialogue. So peacemakers stick with the internal dialogue within their own groups to avoid the over-aggression associated with direct dialogue between opposing worldviews.
I want to warn that such “peacemaking” behavior leads to a downward spiral of tribalism, increasing the very over-aggression that peacemakers seek to alleviate. Engaging in healthy direct dialogue takes practice: we do not naturally cede our ground for the sake of understanding another person’s perspective. If we do not practice the bridging act of direct dialogue, we will become bad at it. People who are unpracticed in direct dialogue create inflammatory clashes when they do engage in direct contact. Such clashes scare more people away from practicing direct dialogue, and the cycle continues.
This is not to say that everyone must take part in direct dialogue. Some simply prefer not to engage in social issues or to remain in the bliss of agnosticism. And, of course, there are appropriate and inappropriate settings in which to discuss contentious topics. But those who engage in contentious issues become cowards when they avoid direct dialogue.
I once asked a fellow student wearing a pro-choice shirt if she would be open to talking about the issue of abortion with me. Apparently, I have a reputation for being pro-life. Recognizing me, she smiled and said “I’m pro-choice,” as if we could no longer have a productive conversation on this matter because we obviously disagree. Another time, I proposed hosting a conversation between Emory’s Students for Israel and Students for Justice in Palestine. The head of the Students for Justice in Palestine declined the idea, saying such a conversation would be derailed by emotions. These well-meaning responses came from a strong sentiment to “agree to disagree.”
This week, I tried to speak with some students protesting Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. I asked one of them what specifically they were protesting, only to hear “I won’t talk specifics” in response. I tried to start a conversation about how we can best help suffering Palestinians. They cut the conversation short, calling their protest a “silent protest”–one in which they would hold signs, but not engage in extended conversation with passersby. These protesters lost a golden opportunity to articulate the grievances they protested. Even more sadly, they did not know exactly what they were protesting. Protesters invalidate their causes when they shun direct dialogue.
I am always surprised by how harshly many of my friends view other groups of people without having actually heard them out in a personal setting. If you like to tease purple-haired social justice warriors, first sit down with a few and engage in direct dialogue with them. If you despise people who wear MAGA hats, first sit down with a few and engage in direct dialogue with them. Protesters at the March for Life should go to the Women’s March to hear the protesters out, and present their own points of view–and vice versa. We can, and should, disagree with people. But lest we dehumanize other humans into negative adjectives, we must take a step back and see that they, too, possess human motivations–good and bad.