Wednesday, 16 October 2013

On Dialogue

"Dialogue, as I understand it, means a sustained conversation between parties who are not saying the same thing and who recognize and respect the differences, the contradictions, and the mutual exclusions between their various ways of thinking. The object of this dialogue is understanding and appreciation, leading to further reflection upon the implication for one's own position of the convictions and sensitivities of the other traditions."

Those words by John V Taylor are very much something to ponder. Taylor was in fact speaking of interfaith dialogue, rather than political dialogue, but the principle is one which I believe still holds good.

When I was speaking to former Deputy and Constable Enid Quénault recently, she told me that in her day politicians could sharply disagree, but they would respect one another. Reading some of the debates in the States nowadays, that respect seems in short supply.

But that respect is the essence of dialogue. No two people are the same, not even identical twins. Circumstances and happenstance shape our lives, and we grow out of our own experiences to look at the world in our own unique way.

That's not to say there is not common ground, and indeed that is the basis of good friendships. As C.S. Lewis said, friendship is born at the moment when one person says to another: "What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . ."

But for enough common ground to exist for dialogue to be meaningful, there must be respect, and a willingness to listen. One of the things that Annie Parmeter taught me from her experience in counselling was that far too often there was an inability to listen. People were so fixated on what they wanted to say, that it blocked off and shut out what other people were saying.

This is so obvious in the States today. Time and again people get up, give their speech, and then leave the States Chamber. They have said their piece. They don't want to stay and listen to what others might have to say. And time and again the Chamber goes inquorate as a result. It shows such a lack of respect, and such an unwillingness to stay and listen to different points of view.

I was at a Chamber of Commerce Lunch recently chatting to John Le Maistre, now Constable of Grouville. The conversation shifted, not to politics, but to cattle and the importation of semen. My grandfather was secretary of the RJ&HS, and I have, as a result, held very firm views against the importation of semen, the breaking of the tradition of keeping the Jersey cow purebred within the Island. I've even written a letter to the JEP about it. But John explained about the smaller pool of bulls within the Island, the diminishing of the gene pool, and how they could select genetically pure Jersey semen, and how that had improved the stock greatly. I listened, and I changed my mind.

Now listening does not always mean changing your mind, but the essence of listening is an open mind to new and fresh ideas. Otherwise, like a diminished gene pool, ideas ossify and become fixed, and poorer for that. And it is also important to try and understand other people, even when you don't agree with them, or one might say, especially when you don't agree with them. Otherwise all you have is trench warfare, with a no man's land, and lobbying of shells across the divide. And there's a lot of that in the States today.

Outright hostility, and the inability to separate the personal from the political are what damage our politics today. Now I've been quite critical of Ben Shenton on a number of occasions, although I do agree with some things he says. But when I disagree with his arguments, it is often a strong disagreement. Yet whenever I've bumped into him, we exchange greetings pleasantly. That's what the States used to be like in the time when Enid Quénault was in the house. And that seems to have been lost.

Another way of looking at behaviour which Annie taught me was how people can all too easily fall into fixed patterns. In the old days, I supposed they might have been called bad habits. But they are not just habits, they are fixed responses, learned ways of reacting, which seem, as she said, to almost take over the individual. It is as if the pattern is running them, and they have to replay that time and again. It's like a record that is stuck in a groove.

I've noticed this too, in the States. As well as failing to listen, the speeches we hear time and again seem to be the same speeches, often moving towards the same subjects, the speaker's favourite subjects. It's as if they are stuck on a train which has to run along fixed railway lines, and they can't go anywhere else. A train spotter can almost tick off the recurring tropes as they pass by.

There's a wonderful story by G.K. Chesterton - one of his Father Brown stories - where a rich man owns these specially cast goldfish ornaments made of gold. To a biologist, he says "You are interested in natural history; have you seen my goldfish?"  To the oriental traveller, he turns the conversation to the Ganges, leading to questions about the possible presence of goldfish there. With the bank manager, the conversation turns to the gold standard, and from thence to goldfish. And to Father Brown - the chain moves to topics of Rome, St Peter, fisherman, fish, and goldfish.

But I've seen that kind of fixity in speeches, or questions, which are violently wrenched round to the speaker's favourite subject, on which they can digress at length. Often the Bailiff has to remind them that they are straying from the point. Indeed, if they cut out the diversions and rambling off the topic under discussion, their speeches would be short concise and memorable. Sometimes they even use the question as an opportunity to make instead a statement rather than ask a question. It's a kind of goldfish syndrome, an itch that they must scratch. And they like the sound of their own voice too much. There is too much ego, and too little ability to be aware of others. And the answers are often as bad. Often they don't answer the question, but evade it. That too has become a fixed pattern.

What can be done to improve matters? In the end, it comes to the politicians themselves. They must learn to respect each other more, or the public will certainly not respect them.. They must stay in the Chamber and listen to other speakers, even if they disagree, even if they find themselves becoming bored by another speaker's long rambling speech, even if they fall asleep. It is a good lesson and they can then reflect on how their own speeches are probably as bad to others, and look to improve their own speeches to that they will not be as long and rambling or boring.

I'll finish with a quote by John V Taylor:

"Africans believe that presence is the debt they owe to one another. That is why Nantume the schoolgirl came to sit silently as I ironed my clothes that day, and ended her visit as all such visits are closed, with the words, 'I have seen you'. Not to be seen, not to be recognised, to become invisible and anonymous, is the burden that subverts the integrity of all those whom the city swallows. The primal vision is of a world of presences, of face-to-face meeting not only with the living but just as vividly with the dead and with the whole totality of nature. It is a universe of I and Thou."

Presence is something we badly need in the States today, not making speeches and departing with haste, but waiting to hear even those that have views you oppose. To stay and say "I have seen you". Otherwise, they treat their fellow politicians as invisible and anonymous, and there will be no face to face meeting, and no dialogue, only a succession of monologues.

1 comment:

James said...


I rather think that respect is the nub of the matter.

Speaking as an outsider, there is an incredible amount of pride carried by many people in Jersey about what they are - and there is consequently a culture built round entitlement.

Bruce Willing's comments about the Dean on BBC Radio Jersey last Sunday were incredibly revealing in this regard. To paraphrase, it doesn't matter what the Dean did or did not do about HG - because he is the Dean, he is entitled to respect.

I was brought up to believe that respect was something to be earned; I think I am not alone in that. And I think that respect is a necessary precursor to trust. Perhaps I should go look for that boat out in the morning...