Musings on “Getting to We”

March 8, 2010


A highlight for me at the "Inviting Dialogue" conference at Clark University was Patricia Romney's talk entitled, "Getting to We: Why Dialogue Matters in Higher Education," she identified three challenges for our field.

The first was that we need to "expand beyond dualities." She said we live in a "post-modern, Bakhtian world of polyphony, of jazz!" in which "there is not just one idea to be considered or two ideas to be debated, but many ideas to be heard and considered." That image brought to my mind a graphic I developed many years ago to depict patterns of polarization. At the bottom of the graphic is a depiction of complex individuals living in community, experiencing themselves as having varying and multiple possibilities for affiliation with each other. They are depicted as multi-colored in different ways. Then they face a divisive threat and some of them become seen by each other, and perhaps to some extent by themselves, through a lens that drains all the colors except one—the color that identifies where they stand on the issue. Returning to Pat's auditory metaphor, an atmosphere of polarization drains the complexity out of the jazz. The noise of polarization encourages us to hear one steady drum beat in one ear and one monotonous tooting of a horn in the other. The beauty, surprise, spontaneity of jazz is missing.

Pat's second point was that we need to recognize and respond to power differentials. To have different life experiences and the different kinds of power that come with them, is to have different ways of hearing and seeing. The slight that one person hears may be unheard by another. Benign not-noticing in the eyes of one may be an act of erasure in the eyes of another. A joke in the ears of one may be a painful insult in the ears of another.

How can we expand our seeing to notice what has been invisible? How can we turn the volume down on the noise of polarization to hear what has been silent or muted? This brings me to Pat's third point. She said we must develop our "dialogic self." It's only when we resist the habits of narrow noticing and dualistic naming, and when we stretch our senses in our dialogic encounters with others, that we can comprehend what our own experiences have not previously brought to our attention and become our "dialogic self."

Thanks, Pat, for a great talk!


Maggie Herzig is a Founding Associate of the Public Conversations Project (now Essential Partners).