Dialogue, as an antidote to the politics of outrage.

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These are fevered times, where public debate has a sort of boom and bust quality. As an issue emerges the tendency is for people to stand up, shout loud, and stand firm. Positions are taken, “cyclists are a danger to themselves and others”, “car drivers act like they own the road”. These positions are often accompanied by “outrage”, a sharp rise in the energy of the debate and a rush to be seen on the moral high ground. Scattergun speeches are made that aims to show that a) yes, I am doing the right thing, and b) no, I have never done the wrong thing. A polarised debate quickly emerges that flares so brightly for a short time then recedes into the background not to be seen again. As this happens the important issues and potential for change is lost, often in a welter of acrimony and/or shame.

The features of these types of debate are apparent in the current news articles related to sexual misconduct by Oxfam staff. There is often a quick hunt for someone to blame, a “conviction”, and then, although it’s too early to say yet, a moving on. What then happens to the issue at the heart of the matter? Usually there is an absence of ongoing dialogue, and the potential for change and something better is lost. Yet the issues that have arisen for Oxfam exist in a wider field.

Mediation can establish spaces for meeting, where views, interests and needs can be exchanged and an agreement reached. However, for larger debates, possibly concerning moral and ethical behaviour, there is a strong case to be made for wider dialogue, forums for people to come together and share their views and ideas for a greater ongoing good. Dealing with issues of morality and ethics requires collaboration and discussion, yet so often moral codes and values are created in the vacuum of silence, where the underlying unnamed script is, “this must not be talked about”. Yet without dialogue, how do we listen, learn, share, and change?

In creating space for dialogue there is likely to be an attendant need to accept, and find a place, for the difficult emotions that may come with the discussion of sensitive topics. Polemic, outrage, revenge, “justice”, the moral high ground, merely bangs the door of change closed. It is possible to make the case that the UK is culturally and institutionally shame bound. This seems to make dialogue on sensitive subjects incredibly challenging, for in shame people withdraw from contact, when the very need is to go towards others (Phil Joyce, 2018). Public forums for dialogue would allow us to work through the moral and ethical issues that continually trip us up, and the various manifestations of polarising shame.

Society will continue to be confronted by moral and ethical issues, that is a natural state of evolutionary affairs. Not related to Oxfam now, but issues of gender inequality, racism, and abusive child/adult relationships have all arisen in UK society in recent years, but what happens to those issues once the dust has settled? Do we create the ongoing conditions for change through dialogue, or do we bury the issue because it’s just too personally challenging to address, and therefore sow the seeds for it to grow again?

This article does not aim to point towards a particular outcome, but instead it points towards an approach, that is one where people feel able to bring themselves into contact with others, and both listen, and be listened to, as the vehicle for change. This looks like people sitting together, within an organisation, a community, or other public places, and sharing perspectives, thoughts and feelings, experiences. In the sharing we start to create a culture of openness, and breakdown the silos of silence, and associated taboos. In this, previously hidden and challenging topics are discussed, and there are less places for abuse to hide. We have to steel ourselves though, for the inevitable shame, at some stage we will all need to ask the question, “what was my role in this?”

The framework of the dialogue groups suggested are not a feature of this article. However, experimentation and research can perhaps move us towards adaptable models that can fit across different contexts.

Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash

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