I have been seeing a therapist since my sophomore year of high school. Not because I have any particular mental problem, just to have someone objective to speak with (it’s unfortunate I have to qualify that). Years of therapeutic dialogue have made me very self-aware. I value therapy because it provides objective commentary, feedback that is often missing from even my most well intentioned family and friends. My penchant for dialogue correlates with many of my on-campus activities: Common Ground, the Duke Colloquium and even Duke Student Government. I have seen the value in dialogue, not just in myself, but also in others. So it would be an understatement to say that I recognize the utility in constructive conversation.
Unfortunately, I have a hard time seeing the utility in our habitual turn to dialogue to resolve campus social issues. It is an omnipresent solution—we host dialogues to discuss offensive party themes, flipped plaza tables, soured campus traditions and national social issues with current relevancy on campus. I have attended many of these post-conflict mediations, and I find them overwrought, forced and awkward. Perhaps my perspective is unique, but I have not seen many results from these dialogues. In some cases, I think dialogue is counter-productive.
Igniting passion is an important ingredient for social change, and on a campus of myriad issues, focused passion is a rare commodity. When a large swath of students rally around a particular issue, it is important that that passion be directed toward change before the anger dissipates. Rather than push change, dialogues temper passion because participants and observers walk away feeling like something has been accomplished. This veneer of results rarely solves the institutionalized problems that wrought controversy in the first place. Dialogues can also augment campus polarization when fingers are pointed. We black-and-white the issue and soon find it all too easy to scapegoat. We become a campus composed of the ignorantly privileged and the forever dissatisfied, and this us versus them mentality makes us more resolute in our erred beliefs.
This is by no means an attack on those who seek to raise awareness. Instead, it’s a critique of the subsequent process once awareness has been raised. It’s unfortunate that such a high burden is placed upon those who work to bring light to an issue. Regardless of the solution, dialogues seem to be the wrong way to move forward. The emphasis on exposing the malfeasance of the ignorant makes subsequent conversation disingenuous. What is a dialogue supposed to accomplish? Reconciliation? Enlightenment? Good PR? If we enter dialogues with the roles of the good and the bad already established, with the offense and defense already defined, can we seriously expect constructive conversation?
My most constructive therapy sessions have occurred when I did not arrive seeking solutions. Therapy has never provided me a solution; it’s only provided insight that gave me the ability to fix my own life. In discussing my thoughts, concerns and successes, I see my motivations and actions in a new light. I verbalize my thoughts and come to accept my failures.
Some of my most enlightening conversations have happened outside of my therapist’s office. I usually recognize my shortcomings by conversing with others, by getting feedback from a different perspective. Often, in my own unrecognized frustration, I have said something pithy or done something petty that has insulted someone. In the moment, I find my comment or action perfectly legitimate, not worthy of note or simply forgettable. I realize my mistake when someone takes the time to explain how that action hurt him or her or how it might have hurt someone else. The conversation never works if it is adversarial or righteous, for those motivations just push me way. It works when there is a commitment to explanation and mutual understanding.
I think few people intend to hurt, insult or disrespect others. Alain de Botton, a writer I follow in Twitter, aptly writes, “Forgiveness requires a sense that bad behavior is a sign of suffering rather than malice.” I would add ignorance as an additional cause of bad behavior. All too often we don’t understand that we have treaded on the unexpressed expectations of others. Through dialogue, we come to learn these expectations, whether it is a shade of respect or a more nuanced attitude. I have realized in therapy my own previously subconscious expectations for myself. In conversation with others, I have realized how my actions might have disappointed individuals in ways I did not expect. That is, and should be the role of dialogue—as an avenue for mutual understanding.
If dialogue is initiated with victims and perpetrators predefined, with participants who are unwillingly forced into the conversation, it is unlikely any mutual understanding will emerge. If dialogue is pursued, it should be sought without pointing fingers. If the conversation isn’t inviting, there is no reason to actively join. It’s impossible to force someone to go to therapy, because the resolution rarely comes from the shrink. It comes from the individual, who comes to realize her or his own errors and seeks a path forward.
Patrick Oathout, DSG executive vice president, is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Tuesday. You can follow Patrick on Twitter @patrickoathout.