Whither Dialogue After the Capitol Riot?
A giant flag demanding “Make America Godly Again,” flanked by a Rambo-image of President Trump with a machine gun. A crowd peppered with flags and T-Shirts proclaiming Jesus 2020, Jesus Saves, “Jesus is My Savior, Trump is my President.” The White Christian nationalist undercurrents of the January 6, 2021 prayer rally and Jericho March on the United States Capitol are undeniable.
Many Christians rightly refute that the rioters can lay claim to any identification with the life and witness of Jesus Christ. As Evangelical leader Beth More tweeted: “I don’t know the Jesus some have paraded and waved around in the middle of this treachery today. . .They may be acting in the name of some other Jesus, but that’s not the Jesus of the Gospels.”
Nonetheless, the January 6th attack on the United States Capitol by a delusional mob is a particularly ominous sign of how susceptible certain facets of White Christianity are to the manipulative effects of conspiracy theories such as QAnon that have fueled the extremism and violence.
In the wake of the attack, it is tempting to reach for arguments that religiously-informed visions of the future of our polity should be pushed out—far out—from the public square. Religion was certainly not the only, and perhaps not even the most important, driver. But religion appears to be a dangerous intensifier that incites our worst demons rather than our better angels.
The events of January 6, 2021 pose formidable obstacles to efforts to foster nuanced discussion about religion and the public square, and to bridging the divide between intensely polarized factions. Where do we go from here? How might we overcome the increasing tendency—on both sides of the political aisle—to perceive efforts to reach out to the other side as an unforgivable “compromise” with evil?
Perhaps the first step forward is to accept that there are limits to dialogue. In many circumstances, an effort can be made to appreciate the fears and concerns that may motivate another person’s actions. But dialogue requires some grounding in a shared account of facts. In his late evening January 6th remarks on the Senate floor, Senator Mitt Romney captured this point well: “The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth.” The truth about the 2020 presidential election is that no evidence of wide-spread fraud has been produced. One cannot “dialogue” with conspiracy theories.
But this still leaves us with a difficult challenge: In 2021, is conversation across vastly different religious and political worldviews even possible? Teaching discussion-based seminars in law, legal ethics, and religious values, I increasingly encounter tensions in which what one group assumes to be a social good, another group assumes to be a harm—and vice versa. When we talk about freedom or justice, I cannot assume a shared foundation that informs our understanding of exactly what those words mean.
Conversations about religion and morality, law, politics, and public policy are further stymied by the tendency to cross-talk between arguments on different “levels.” Some emphasize high-level but fairly abstract principles, while others engage with more practical, low-level problem-solving concerns. In these conflicts, we are like a group of hikers: some are focused intensely on the compass, which gives a clear but fairly general and high-level sense of direction. Others are focused on the topographical map: how do we get from here to there, through this rock pile, or across this stream that is deeper and wider than anticipated.
In good conditions, we should be able to listen to each other, taking helpful indications from both compass and map readers. But polarization acts like a fog that makes seeing each other’s humanity difficult. Polarized and polarizing social media and news outlets reinforce suspicion that the methods of the other side are not to be trusted and that they will lead us in completely the wrong direction. A breakdown of critical thinking and reflection also compels us to speak to each other in “scripts” – not really listening, and not really speaking to each other, but imitating what others say about the topic.
In light of these challenges, how might we foster conditions for dialogue across profound differences, now also in the wake of the attack on the Capitol?
What is at Stake
Before we dive into methods, it might be helpful to reflect on the stakes. Why should I even entertain the idea of honing my skills to dialogue with people who think differently? I see three good reasons.
First, as a person in relationship with others, I cannot always choose the people with whom I interact. Sometimes deep differences lead to a stark choice: either find a way to communicate, or be doomed to the isolation and loneliness of superficial relationships. Echo chambers can be comforting at first, but often they eventually splinter into increasingly self-righteous factions. One of my students captured well the limits of these flattened conversational spaces: “We are even boring ourselves.” To avoid these traps, it is worth it to invest time and energy into dialogue skills. Dialogue is an essential personal skill.
Second, most professional and work environments require a capacity to take in and understand differing perspectives and to communicate across profound differences. My job as a teacher is not to indoctrinate students into my ideas, but to help them think for themselves and develop their own ideas. Lawyers need to understand their clients’ goals, in a non-manipulative way. The capacity to problem-solve through dialogue is often the distinguishing mark of an excellent professional contribution. Dialogue is an essential professional skill.
Last, but not least—and certainly evident in our current predicament—the path to positive social and political change runs through a capacity to communicate across differences of all kinds. To get some political movement on important questions, steps in the direction of justice will be sustained by a better understanding of what is at stake for people; of different options for arriving at certain goals; of the tensions between different goals; of concerns about unintended consequences, and so on. Dialogue is an essential social and political skill.
Dialogue and Protest
“Don’t dare call them protesters,” President-Elect Biden said in his remarks on January 6. “They were a riotous mob. Insurrectionists.” In contrast, Fox News host Tucker Carlson characterized the incident as nothing more than a “political protest that got out of hand.”
From different angles, both emphasize the revered place of protest in the U.S. experience of democracy. We need protest, with its stark declarations of what is wrong, and clear demands for what is right. We need forms of communication that fit onto a poster or placard.
But protest represents only one form of political communication, one rhetorical form. And if we limit our vision of politics only to an affirmation of principles—if we focus only on the compass—at a certain point we are not going to be able to work through the obstacles on the ground.
Working for change in society, and building a team of people who are convinced that they can work together for positive change, requires a variety of communicative forms: conversation, analysis, teaching, debate, and even the easy back and forth between friends in all of the ways that we “chat” online or in person.
Dialogue is a privileged space to discuss more fully exactly how we hope to protect human dignity in a given political terrain, against the backdrop of a specific history or economy; how we hope to dismantle unfair structures; how we navigate the creative tensions between values and interests.
Dialogue is not about squelching conflict. It is not about merely smoothing over points of tension. It is about developing the equipment we need to step into complexity, into relationships, and into the hard work of caring for our body politic.
Reframe the Goal: Listening to Understand
In his 1994 essay, Religion as a Conversation Stopper, Richard Rorty critiqued Stephen L. Carter’s 1994 book, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. Aligning with Jürgen Habermas, Rorty saw the secularization of public life as the Enlightenment’s “central achievement,” and took up the mantle of “getting our fellow citizens to rely less on tradition, and to be more willing to experiment with new customs and institutions.”
Rorty defended the project against Carter’s critique of the idea that public conversation should be limited to “certain moral premises in common.” He explained: “Contemporary liberal philosophers think that we shall not be able to keep a democratic political community going unless the religious believers remain willing to trade privatization for a guarantee of religious liberty.” And the main reason that religion needs to be privatized? As Rorty claimed: it is a “conversation stopper.”
Just over twenty-five years later, and especially in the wake of the 2020 election, it seems clear that this purported compromise is not working for large swaths of the United States. What methods might provide a way forward?
For my own teaching and scholarship on religion in the public square, I have found great inspiration in Robert Cover’s brief but brilliant 1987 essay, Obligation: A Jewish Jurisprudence of the Social Order. In contrast to Richard Rorty and John Rawls, Cover did not insist that people with differing thought systems or comprehensive worldviews reduce their public communication to an “overlapping consensus” that is stripped of reference to their own traditions. For example, asked to reflect on Judaism and human rights, Cover explained with simplicity: “the categories are wrong”—because “Judaism has its own categories for expressing through law the worth and dignity of each human being.” Instead, Cover pressed on to describe the space required to explore other “fundamental words” and the “fundamental stories” from which those words receive their force and meaning.
Cover proposed a comparative method. He recognized that each system of rhetoric has a differently “loaded, evocative edge.” Each has strengths and weaknesses, but there is room to appreciate both: “Sinai and social contract both have their place.” Cover also left room in the conversation for ample appreciation of personal and religious experience: what system speaks to me? In this essay, scanning his own “privileged position” and the blessings in his own life, Cover concluded: “it seems to me that the rhetoric of obligation speaks more sharply to me than that of rights.” (In earlier scholarship I have explored how Cover’s comparative method illuminates an approach to dialogue on the law and policy of euthanasia).
In the wake of the 2020 election, I believe that Cover’s framework offers quite a balm for our polity. A first insight would be to let go—or at least loosen a tight grip—on the liberal quest for an “overlapping consensus.” For a large number of people in our polity, the categories of liberal theory simply do not capture or fully capture their worldview. For some, insisting that they translate their beliefs into these categories of thought does not help to generate understanding and consensus, but a deeper sense of alienation. Perhaps at least for this point in our journey we should acknowledge that we are not going to reach a consensus on some deeply contested issues.
Many educational and online settings cultivate a tendency to listen in order to debate or refute. In one of my seminars, we compared this approach to a sound effect from the Star Wars movies. As someone is talking, it is like I am accumulating in my mind bullet points—bullets—to then shoot out in quick fire rapid response: “pew, pew, pew!”
What if the goal of dialogue were to be reframed as listening to understand? Listening to understand entails creating the space in my own mind and heart to receive the other as they are, so that they might articulate their ideas in the way that they would like to express them, with their own words and concepts. The beauty of a comparative method for dialogue is that it often opens out into a much deeper and richer appreciation of both the strengths and the limits of differing visions of the good. It also leaves more room for narratives about personal commitment and insight that can humanize a political debate.
Of course, there will be important limits. Of course, we should protect a necessary space to firmly denounce racism, sexism, homophobia, bigotry of all types, and other social and cultural maladies that diminish human dignity. Listening to understand does not foreclose even vigorous critique. But it does help to humanize the arguments, and in so doing, to reduce the tendency for conversation to devolve into paralyzing personal attacks.
Slow Down, Create Smaller Groups
All this might sound good in theory, but extremely difficult to put into practice.
Much in our current culture fosters communication that is hasty, reactive or reductive. If I don’t answer a message within two days, I find myself writing, “I am sorry it has taken me forever to get back to you.” The length of Tweets and other forms of social media are necessarily reductive and often reactive. Exchanges online are further reduced because they lack the benefit of body language and other physical cues.
Thus, a first suggestion is to slow down the pace and amplify the space we need for deeper reflection, which can in turn inform thoughtful critical discussion of the issues. In the 2018 Apostolic Exhortation, Rejoice and Be Glad, Pope Francis reflects on the religious dimensions of slowing down the pace: “We are overwhelmed by words, by superficial pleasures and by an increasing din, filled not by joy but rather by the discontent of those whose lives have lost meaning. How can we fail to realize the need to stop this rat race and recover the personal space needed to carry on a heartfelt dialogue with God? Finding that space may prove painful but it is always fruitful.” (29)
My own anxieties about communication with others are often quelled when I consistently take that quiet time I need to reflect, meditate, or pray. It is there that I find the insight and energy I need to keep an even keel in dialogue.
I have seen a similar shift when students recollect their own thoughts in writing prior to seminar discussions. Often there is a fascinating correlation between the time they take to gather their own ideas, with attention to their interior thought process, and their openness to receiving the thoughts of others.
Few roles or jobs actually require an immediate, reactive response. A substantial pause is almost always helpful in the process of thoughtful evaluation of a situation, event or crisis.
A second consideration is to appreciate how difficult it can be to enter potentially conflictual spaces in a large group. For those who are moderating discussions, whether in educational or community settings, smaller groups can help to further humanize and civilize interactions and dialogue. In online settings, smaller groups can also help, to some extent, to amplify the capacity to read body language even through a screen.
Critical Reflection Aided by a Buddy System
What kinds of relational spaces might open up on the basis of an effort to listen to understand? One possibility is the development of partnerships that might help us to refine communication skills for better dialogue across profound difference.
In some of my grassroots community work on religion and citizenship, we have playfully described some of the elements of these efforts as “The Buddy System”—building on arrangements in which individuals are paired for the purpose of mutual safety in a hazardous situation.
It can be overwhelming to consider the idea of engaging everyone who disagrees, or reaching the people who seem to be the most intractable. Instead, the Buddy System encourages people to cultivate a relationship of trust with just one person who is invested in the future of another party, or in some way is on the “other side” of something that matters to them.
Open conversations in this context might help us to better understand how one might sound in someone else’s ears, and to adjust accordingly. Further, stopping to consult with a buddy in the midst of a given conflict necessarily helps the person to slow down to reflect on this question when they would be otherwise tempted to simply react.
All of these gestures may seem small and insignificant as we stare down the chasms of division and anger that plague our polity. But in my experience with these methods in teaching and community work, they are often sufficient to light a little candle of hope.
Even a small but concrete experience of listening to understand—of receiving another person in their integrity, without judgement; and being received by another in this way—can be transformative. And this in turn can spark the curiosity and tenacity that we might need to cultivate the virtues that can help to heal our polity.
On January 7, 2021, Michelle Obama tweeted a message on what it will take to truly repair what is broken:
It is up to each of us to do our part. To reach out. To listen. And to hold tight to the truth and values that have always led this country forward. It will be an uncomfortable, sometimes painful process. But if we enter into it with an honest and unwavering love of our country, then maybe we can finally start to heal.
Perhaps the work of dialogue grounded in the capacity to listen to understand is one of those paths forward.
“From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the spring.” So begins the poem by Israeli Yehuda Amichai that adorns the last station of the Tel Aviv memorial exhibit to Yitzhak Rabin. In contrast, the poem continues, “doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plow.”
Making room in the conversation for “doubts and loves” does not mean throwing principles to the wind. But it does require cultivating a space to appreciate that there are a variety of paths, strategies and theories, that can lead to hoped-for social and political goals. The difficult art of dialogue, listening to understand, is one way to open out that space.
And if we do so, perhaps we might also help to bring into reality the promise in Amichai’s closing line: “And a whisper will be heard in the place where the ruined house once stood.” ♦
Amy Uelmen is a Lecturer in Religion & Professional Life and Special Advisor to the Dean at Georgetown Law and a Senior Research Fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. She has authored numerous articles and two books about political dialogue, both with New City Press: Five Steps to a Positive Vision of Politics, and Five Steps to Healing Polarization in the Classroom (with Michael Kessler). She holds a BA, JD and SJD research doctorate from Georgetown University, and a MA in Theology from Fordham University. She is a longtime member of the Focolare Movement and participant in its work, as described by Pope John Paul II, to be “apostles of dialogue.”
Uelmen, Amy. “Whither Dialogue After the Capitol Riot?” Canopy Forum, January 13, 2021. https://canopyforum.org/2021/01/14/whither-dialogue-after-the-capitol-riot/.