The best dialogue cherishes difference

The best dialogue cherishes differenceAt a time when diplomacy seems to be a dying art in the arena of international relations, the concept of "dialogue", and especially inter-faith dialogue, has experienced something of a rebirth within local government, the university and civil society.

Because the concept of dialogue seems self-evident, very few of us ever really take the time to think about what dialogue may actually mean, what it entails and what we can legitimately expect from it.

The first thing we tend to think about whenever dialogue is mentioned, is talking. Yet the key to successful dialogue is listening.

A good listener is someone who can hear what another person has to say without letting prejudice get in the way, or, put differently, it is someone who can attach the same importance to another person’s beliefs and opinions as they do to their own, no matter how different the two are.

But what is the measure of successful dialogue?

Whilst many see and use dialogue as a way to identify our similarities, its true value often lies in the way it can teach us to recognise and respect other people’s differences, and to see difference as valuable, in and of itself.

Often, dialogue is used to establish some sort of common ground between people who otherwise live and practise different faiths and cultures.

Understood in this way, if the aim of dialogue is to highlight the similarities that can unite different people, its ideal end-point is reached when two people, who start off emphasising all the things that make them different, end up recognising all the things that actually make them quite similar, their similar life experiences, hopes, dreams, shared values, morals, beliefs and so on.

This emphasis on finding a common ground between different people, cultures or faiths through dialogue is, of course, extremely important. But often the most productive forms of dialogue are those that don’t try to sweep our differences under the carpet, but instead teach us to recognise and value them.

The best dialogue cherishes differenceIt teaches us that our interactions with different people, cultures and religions, actually enrich our lives, and that difference is something we should openly value and promote, rather than fear and shun.

Put simply, dialogue not only offers us a way of reaching some sort of common understanding about our similarities, it also offers us a way of reaching some sort of common understanding about our differences, such that we see difference in a new and more positive light.

This aspect of dialogue is doubly important today in a world that seems ever less willing to accommodate difference.

In Australia, people of different faiths and cultures find themselves increasingly marginalised despite this country’s claims to multiculturalism.

Much of what we now see, hear and read from some of our political leaders and influential opinion makers would have us believe that we live in a world divided into two camps, a world irreparably torn between “us” and “them”, the civilised and the barbarous, good and evil.

The lines of demarcation are, of course, racial and religious.

The best dialogue cherishes differenceRather than promoting the value and strength of diversity, we are increasingly taught to see different cultures and faiths as a constant source of danger, one that chips away at the very fabric of Australian society and undermines our “Australian way of life".

Today, the most obvious example of this is the vilification of Australia’s many Arab and Muslim communities. Like most others, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim vilification is rooted in a series of crude stereotypes that project our own biases, misconceptions and fears onto others.

Such stereotypes don’t distinguish between different people, but simply paint all Arabs and Muslims with the same brush. Today, we demand that Arab and Muslim communities in Australia be answerable to the very stereotypes that we ourselves impose upon them. We constantly ask them to publicly reaffirm their allegiance to Australia, and yet we never really believe them when they do. We constantly see them as a source of danger, and increasingly treat them not with the dignity they deserve, but in accordance with our own paranoias and misconceptions.

The best dialogue cherishes differenceThere are many reasons why this is occurring, and sometimes being encouraged, but the point is that the vilification of Arabs and Muslims in Australia reveals a failure on our part to recognise them as human beings. What is also significant is that we are fast losing our capacity to listen to other people, and to accept and make room for different faiths and cultures in this country.

We are becoming less able to accommodate those who are different to us, because we are now more likely to marginalise and malign other people’s differences. We are no longer able to recognise, and are no longer encouraged to recognise, the many positive contributions that people from many different faiths and cultures have brought with them to Australia.

In its demand that we learn to listen, and that we learn to value and respect difference, dialogue is perhaps the only way open to us to reverse this trend.



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