Without Constructive Dialogue History Will Repeat Itself

I am getting the feeling of déjà vu these days. Politics in Ethiopia today resembles the Ethiopia of the mid-1970s. Then as now, the country was going through rapid changes. Admittedly, the change was more revolutionary than evolutionary, not to mention unprecedented. But still, there was as much, if not more, hope then as now. There is an unmistakable similarity in the public euphoria we are experiencing.

Considering how it ended, it is easy to forget how promisingly it all started. It enjoyed widespread support in the country, and there was a broad coalition of different interest groups that came together under the umbrella of the progressive movement.

In the prevalent collective exuberance, there was a proliferation of ideas being discussed on how to take the country forward. Censorship laws having just been lifted for the first time in the country’s history, it heralded the beginnings of public discourse.

There were not as many platforms then though. No social media, YouTube or even mobile phones. Incredible as it might seem to the younger generation, opinion pieces such as this had to either be physically delivered to the editor of a newspaper or sent through the post office.

Now, I could instantly post this piece from my laptop. Nor do I need one of the legacy media outlets to agree to publish my article. It is an amazing transformation that is extremely helpful in disseminating information. But it could also be fatal, because it is equally effective in spreading fake news and hate speech.

Even on what now look like archaic platforms – such as state-run newspapers and underground pamphlets – it did not take long for the discussions to deteriorate into agitated arguments. Name calling and labelling soon followed. It was a slippery slope from there onwards.

The big umbrella of progressives started to fold into fractured groups of enemies who could not stand each other. The shameful history of assassinations and the resulting deterioration into outright dictatorship was a natural outcome of those early mistakes of intolerance.

Unfortunately, the early stages of that familiar failing are creeping into the public discourse these days. An increasingly intolerant attitude toward those with a different view is becoming rampant. Tempers are getting frayed even before the really complex and challenging policy issues are touched. The way disagreements are being framed as us-versus-them is unhealthy. It is following an eerily familiar path taken before.

It is crucial that the similarities end here. It is not inevitable that we follow the same old script toward devastation. A new script can be written. The first place to start is by learning to have a constructive dialogue.

William Isaacs, director of MIT’s Dialogue Project, succinctly defines constructive dialogue as “the art of thinking together.” This is what sets dialogue apart from discussion or debate. Most of what passes as conversation in our nation is not dialogue but advocacy.

There is a time and place for advocacy. But one cannot do it all the time on all forums, when there is also the need to listen.

Constructive dialogue starts when we hold our sense of self-importance in check. We have to acknowledge that there may be a slight possibility that our ideas may not be the only answer out there. We have to accept that other people may also come up with good ideas once in a while. It is crucial to listen to others – it is the most important part of dialogue.

Anyone can talk. But few ever master the art of listening. Listening with a genuine interest to see the other party’s position, with more empathy than judgement, and with the intention to understand instead of to counter punch is what ‘thinking together’ signifies.

Once we understand the problem the other party is facing, we can work on envisioning a way of addressing it. Trying to find creative solutions to problems instead of blaming the victim is what will move us forward. No amount of name-calling or vilifying the “other side” will make the problem go away. Together we need to find the common ground.

If yet another hope-filled opportunity for reform in this country is not to be squandered, we need to acknowledge that no one has a monopoly on truth. We should be willing to entertain different ideas. It is then that we can arrive at a mutual understanding of our relative positions and find the middle ground.

We should challenge ourselves to give others and their ideas the benefit of the doubt before we tap the “post” or “tweet” buttons on our easily accessible social media walls.

By Tibebu Bekele
Tibebu Bekele is interested in constructive dialogue and civic engagement. He can be reached at tibebu@gmail.com.

Published on Jul 28,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 952]



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