People in conversation

Slowing Down: Dialogue After Newtown

John Backman

Shortly after the terrible shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the public square filled with a cacophony of voices and, running through them all, a sense of urgency. We have to do something NOW, while the tragedy is still fresh in everyone’s mind and the story is still in the headlines.

That urgency has produced a mixed bag of results. I take heart from the birth of Newtown United (now known as Sandy Hook Promise) the efforts among dialogue practitioners to rally support for a broader dialogue connecting Newtown and people outside its borders. On the other side is the mountain of verbiage that has delivered little or no value, even harm, from the “judgment of God” proclamations to the tired talking points of partisans on various issues.

More and more, I find myself drawn to something different. A wise monk from Holy Cross Monastery refers to it as “making haste slowly.”

Good things can come from slowing down the pace. For one, it gives us room to grieve—to live with the horror of what has happened, let it speak to us, and gather ourselves after the initial shock. I wrote about this recently in terms of the value of silence in the face of horror.

For another, it has become clear that the whys behind these incidents are beyond complex. They touch on issues of gun ownership, mental health, empathy, video games, a strain of violence that has become endemic to U.S. society, etc., etc. Each of those issues, in turn, is loaded with a seemingly infinite array of nuances and issues all its own.

Even under normal circumstances, we cannot process all—or even a significant portion—of those issues quickly. When in shock and grief, we often cannot process at all. A rush to action under these conditions carries a very high risk of missing the boat entirely.

Instead, this complexity requires a deeper level of thought and reflection. It requires “thinking together,” in William Isaacs’ phrase, to explore without any sense of knowing the answers. In short, it takes time—lots of it.

I am starting to hear voices echoing this need for time and reflection. A poster on Facebook notes that all she can do right now is cry. Mike Huckabee, of all people—just a few days removed from his very unfortunate comments about God in the light of the Newtown shootings—notes the need for interdisciplinary study of incidents like these.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been mulling a “think-pause-think” approach that starts with the basic question “What do we know?” The question itself comes from the detective spoof “Mathnet” (a segment of the popular children’s program Square One TV), in which the detectives seek to gain clarity on a particularly complex case by starting over with the most fundamental, agreed-upon facts. In the context of dialogue, this approach could enable us to strip out all the chatter in the public square, return to those “known facts,” and let them speak to us.

So. What do we know? That nearly every perpetrator of these shootings is male. Pause to reflect. See what emerges. What else do we know? Repeat as often as necessary.

This reflective approach—the very essence of “making haste slowly”—creates a space from which entirely new avenues of thought can emerge. Those new avenues, in turn, might help us break through the ossified positions and talking points that have brought us nowhere.

There are times when urgency is required—or perhaps required of some people. But the mass rush to urgency feels counterproductive (and easy to feed in an age of instant communication). In cases like these, slowing down the dialogue may be essential for producing the richest dialogue possible.