Promoting a culture of dialogue and encounter in a divided world

Politics in our world is so polarised, it is hard to even discuss let alone come to a meaningful consensus on a range of issues.

By Anil Netto
Politics in our world is so polarised, it is hard to even discuss let alone come to a meaningful consensus on a range of issues.

Most people would like to live a life of dignity and cultivate their full potential. That shouldn’t be too hard to define. But what we see in politics is politicians talking over each other, lacking respect, and often promoting vested interests.

As for the public, we see apathy, on the one hand, and protests, on the other. But the Bishop of Rome points to a third way: dialogue with openness to the truth.

It is only through such constructive dialogue that a nation can flourish. This is how Francis opens Chapter Six of his encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti (Brothers and Sisters All). Acting out of neighbourly love means listening to the other in “dialogue and friendship in society”, the title of the chapter.

It is often easier to discredit opponents than to respectfully engage in deep dialogue with them to arrive at some sort of agreement. Divisiveness is often fuelled by the media during political campaigns. Often a lack of dialogue serves not the common good but the interests of power, those seeking to impose their own ideas.

In contrast, when people are consistent in their thinking, defend their values and convictions, and develop their arguments, this surely benefits society, Francis writes.

This can only happen when there is genuine dialogue and openness to others. Indeed, “in a true spirit of dialogue, we grow in our ability to grasp the significance of what others say and do, even if we cannot accept it as our own conviction”.

Francis reminds us that “differences are creative; they create tension and in the resolution of tension lies humanity’s progress”.

This sort of tension was evident in the strong differences of opinion among the  apostles over vexing theological questions in the New Testament, and has continued over the course of human history.

Even scientists, researchers and academics should be open to the findings in other fields through “greater interdisciplinary communication”.

The media — the Internet, in particular — offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity, Francis says. But the Internet is also a double-edged sword that could exploit people and bring out the worst in them.

Engaging in dialogue to reach a consensus does not mean we sideline the truth under the guise of tolerance. Such relativism – which holds that a perspective depends on the vantage point or frame of assessment of the person holding a particular view – would ultimately leave the interpretation of moral values to those holding the power to define them as they see fit.

Laws should be borne of conviction and wisdom underscored by the belief that every human being is sacred. Society must uphold the truth of human dignity and submit to that dignity – no relativism there.

So people must be aware of the ways that truth can be manipulated and distorted in public and private discourse.

If we fail to grasp and uphold the truth about human dignity, it would be easy for those in power to deny fundamental human rights. They could then impose some alleged “truth” and then gain the “consensus” of an apathetic or intimidated population. In the end, the will of the strongest would prevail  – through authoritarian rule or perhaps dictatorship.

So we must be aware of certain universal values to ensure solid social ethics. These values can be established through dialogue and consensus. These same enduring values will then rise above consensus, transcending various situations, to become non-negotiable.

The three realities – the interests of society, consensus and objective truth – can be harmonised through genuine dialogue, Francis writes. This can take place when people are not afraid of going deep into the heart of an issue, always respecting the dignity of others.

“Life, for all its confrontations, is the art of encounter,” Francis reminds us. And for this we have to cultivate a culture of encounter that can transcend differences.

In these encounters, we must include the marginalised, those on the periphery. “For they have another way of looking at things; they see aspects of reality that are invisible to the centres of power where weighty decisions are made.”

To promote this “culture of encounter”, we have to be passionate about meeting others, “seeking points of contact, building bridges, planning a project that includes everyone”.

To integrate differences is a difficult and slow process but it guarantees real and lasting peace. We have to create processes of encounter to enable people to accept differences. Children should be armed with “the weapons of dialogue” and taught to “fight the good fight of the culture of encounter”.

We have to recognise people’s right to be themselves and to be different. Otherwise, “a more insidious kind of violence can take root: the violence of those who despise people who are different, especially when their demands in any way compromise their own particular interests”.

If some people ignore the existence or rights of others, then violence could erupt, often when we least expect it. Liberty, equality and fraternity must apply to everyone.

The culture of encounter should not be confined to the holders of power – whether economic, political or academic.

Instead it must include the culture of the land – a “cultural covenant” that respects the different worldviews, cultures and lifestyles that coexist in society. We have to understand these cultures. Francis cites the example of indigenous people. They are not against progress – but they have a different, more humanistic idea of progress. “Theirs is not a culture meant to benefit the powerful, those driven to create for themselves a kind of earthly paradise.”

Lack of respect for their cultures “is a form of violence grounded in a cold and judgmental way of viewing them”.

We cannot achieve authentic and lasting change unless it starts from the various cultures - particularly those of the poor. Our cultural covenant must entail “respect for diversity by offering opportunities for advancement and social integration to all”.

In our worldly individualistic consumer culture, it can often seem like it is every person for himself or herself.

To overcome this, we can cultivate kindness – for kindness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.

When kindness becomes part of our culture, it can transform lifestyles, relationships and the ways ideas are discussed and compared. “Kindness facilitates the quest for consensus; it opens new paths where hostility and conflict would burn all bridges,” Francis says

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