In honour of this year’s theme for Memefest: The International Festival of Socially Responsive Art and Communication, I will speak to role of capital-D dialogue as an agent of social change. And because I am too impatient to be a theorist, I will speak to the promise and limits of dialogue drawing from ‘real life’ experiences.
If you are even more impatient than I, then the punch line goes something like this: Dialogue can enable us to take a collective step forward in situations where power has been well distributed among participants. In those where it has not, there are still bullies that need to ‘get owned’.
Dialogue always comes in wearing a halo. In academia and in high-minded policy circles, it is often upheld as a key to solving the world’s problems. I myself have drunk the Kool Aid many times and still refuse to stop believing. After all, ‘Online Dialogue Strategist’ is my chosen professional title. I fell in love with the ideas of the late physicist cum dialogue proponent, David Bohm, have sat through dialogue circles in strangers’ living rooms and even based my Masters thesis around the creation and management of a cross-cultural online dialogue back in 2003.
In recent years, I have earned a living bringing together very disparate players, activists and industry, to engage in a kind of dialogue over controversial resource projects. This process does lead to some interesting exchanges and transforms those who participate. However, the conditions leading up to dialogue, though often overlooked, are a crucial part of the story.
As much we may thirst for civilized dialogue in situations of conflict, it’s Power, that blasted elephant in the room, that still makes it or breaks it! Put simply, power asymmetry is a Dialogue killer. For theorists out there, this has been very thoroughly explored by Ganesh and Zoller in an article titled: Dialogue, Activism, and Democratic Social Change.
Having seen things unfold in the field, I can safely say that none of the dialogues I have been asked to set up would have happened had there not been a prior build up of pressure brought to bear by activists on the reputations of the corporations or industries involved. Dialogue, therefore, comes from a kind of ‘mercy position’, when sufficient power has been exerted on the power-rich to make them consider this option.
This, of course, has many implications for those working towards social change. Though dialogue is often praised over strong-arm tactics, activists need to know that true dialogue cannot happen unless other key players involved feel that there is significant power in the room. If one is starting from a position of very low power, then pressure tactics (protest, direct action, shaming etc.). used to build power capital, will be the necessary first step before coming to the table.
That being said, activists also need to keep in mind that dialogue is a necessary progression when the pressure they have exerted has been sufficient to realign the power balance. If they cannot segue from pressure tactics to ‘being part of the solution’, through dialogue, then they will not be converting the power they have won into long term gains. It’s easy to denounce and say ‘no’ to everything. Dialogue is part of the hard work of collectively making things work for all involved, considering the many moving pieces of complex issues.
And when we finally reap the benefits of this world changing process, let’s not forget to acknowledge the early kicks in the butt that made it all possible!