A few days ago, I participated in a program dedicated to dialogue and understanding. One participant attempted a summary of our shared insights. He noted that we had succeeded in putting our differences aside so we could emphasize what we had in common. This approach is based on a theory that what we have in common will unite us. It also assumes that ultimately differences do not really matter. This dialogue session caused me to have some serious reactions that, I hope, are becoming important reflections. May I share a few thoughts with you.
As I look back on our seminar, it was lacking any real diversity. Arriving at commonality was rather easy since the lack of diversity emphasized the relative sameness of the participants’ life experiences. No one in the group experienced racial prejudice. No participant experienced harassment because of gender or orientation. No one in the seminar was an immigrant even though they mostly come from immigrant stock of generations past. The gathered folk were, however, politically diverse.
My friend, who wanted to emphasize commonality, was convinced the political differences did not matter. He believed we all had the best interest of the Nation in mind as we divided over diverse political beliefs which could be put aside. The group was eager to stay peaceful and united so differences and passions were quickly dismissed. One would think this was a civil meeting of well-intentioned people eager to stay calm, receptive, and understanding. I beg to differ as I continue to reflect and consider what happened.
First, authentic dialogue does not dismiss differences. When we appreciate the differences people have, we open ourselves to a more diverse World. We can easily be tempted to think that all peoples enjoy the same rights and privileges as some groups do. While it is true that any gathering of people can dialogue, the group must be aware of how diverse it is or isn’t. We must confront the temptation to speak about people we have never met. We must open ourselves to the experiences and perspectives of people who we do not ordinarily meet.
Differences do not need to be the source or origin of disagreement, conflict, or controversy. Differences can be the cause of delight, joy, learning, and growth. I always feel a surge when I or someone says, “I never looked at it that way before!” What we truly have in common is our humanity. Our common humanity is lived and felt in diverse ways. The sharing of that diversity enriches anyone who would truly engage in sharing diverse experiences, ideas, and cultures.
Finally, authentic diverse dialogue invites participants to be honest and open about their life experiences. This may result in heartbreak, alarm, and crisis. When people privileged by majority status truly hear those victimized by minority status, defensiveness, resentment, anger, and fear might arise. This is when true dialogue can emerge. This is when peace has a chance to flourish.
I have come to the conclusion that our Nation is not polarized politically but morally. Peace makers must confront the immorality of sexism, patriarchy, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the relentless attacks on the LGBTQA+ communities to name a few. Ultimately, these issues are not cultural wars or political points of view, they are moral issues demanding that we stop hurting and killing people in the name of freedom, religion, privilege, or exclusivism. Confrontation may be counterintuitive to the peace makers but we can no longer afford the luxury of thinking that hating, cursing, and threating people is a political strategy or a moral compass.
It is time to stand up and speak out for what is right, true, and good. My freedom does not necessitate your harm. My beliefs must never compromise your right to live. My political views must never threaten the dignity and beauty of your person.
Thomas P. Bonacci, C.P.
The Interfaith Peace Project