In the recent General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, a less commented upon aspect was the courteous and respectful manner in which difficult discussions were conducted. Lord Hodge’s introduction to the debate on same sex relationships and the ministry reminded the Assembly of the danger of group polarisation and of the importance of ‘continuing discernment’ and a sense of perspective.
The Assembly was also reminded of what they had been told on the Saturday evening by the world-renowned specialist in conflict resolution, Ken Cloke, founder of Mediators Beyond Borders. Dr Cloke spoke eloquently of his experience of what happens in conflict and that ‘there is no them and us in conflict, only us’. He spoke of how easily we can destroy ourselves when confronting others with whom we disagree and he commended the virtues of kindness and generosity.
That the Church could discuss very difficult issues with dignity reflects a growing realisation in many communities of both the opportunity and the necessity to conduct conversations in a different way. The importance of seeking to understand others viewpoints and of returning to civility in our public discussions, in the metaphorical ‘civil public square’, has been argued by Os Guinness in his outstanding book, The Case for Civility.
As I discussed in an earlier post, Guinness and others worry that the propensity to resort to name-calling, insult, ridicule, caricature, accusation and denunciation has become such a feature of Western debate that we scarcely notice or challenge it. But such behaviour – the art and trade of negation – comes with a cost: the trivialisation and distortion of important issues, a lack of real engagement about what matters most, and a self-fulfilling demonisation of the other side, whoever they may be.
Without the skill, competency or confidence to behave differently, people can default back into adversarialism. In the United States, the Public Conversations Project seeks to guide, train, and inspire individuals, organisations, and communities to address conflicts constructively by using effective dialogue. The Church of Scotland has trained several mediators and its ecumenical Place for Hope initiative has already begun to make a difference in the way tough issues are addressed. This will be essential in the weeks and months ahead.
More generally, it can be said that the way we discuss our differences is a crucial indicator of our maturity as a nation and of our ability to pursue a better society, confident in how it addresses and accommodates diversity.
Thus, with a substantial majority at Holyrood, the SNP Government has the opportunity to show that it can engage other points of view constructively and behave in a more sophisticated way than has often been the case in political discourse. With a new Chief Executive, Edinburgh Council can approach resolution of the trams problem with a more problem-solving orientation and a focus on building relationships rather than finding fault.
The high profile issues around sectarianism and the religious divide cry out for honest and courteous exploration of the underlying issues, hopes, needs and fears of those caught up in it. None of this is easy but our future may depend on it.
As Margaret Wheatley once said: "It’s not our differences which separate us, but our judgments about each other." Civilised dialogue requires us to set aside judgment and work with – and indeed celebrate – our diversity.