I have often reminded others (and myself in the process) that our commitment to nonviolence is only tested when people do things we don’t like. How are we going to respond when we see an individual, a leader, a group, or even a nation, acting in ways that are not aligned with what we want to see happen in the world?
Nonviolence gets its power from love, from breaking down the barriers of separation and cultivating compassion for everyone, from the courage to face consequences to our actions, from the willingness to stand for truth, from the fierce commitment to overcome fear and act in integrity.
Responding nonviolently to what we don’t like, then, invites us to find ways of bringing love, courage, and truth to the situation even while we are trying to transform it.
Nonviolent Resistance and Dialogue
What can our actions look like when we come from this perspective? We either engage in dialogue, when such is available, or we engage in nonviolent resistance. Nonviolent resistance can be seen as an escalation of dialogue just as much as war can be seen as an escalation of diplomatic fear-based negotiations. In nonviolent resistance we bring to bear resources to increase engagement, to make visible our plight, to appeal to the humanity of those whose actions we want to change, or simply to reduce their ability to keep doing their actions without cost so as to invite more consideration of other options. Nonviolent resistance was the quintessential method of Gandhi, MLK, and many other movements, including the recent ones in the Arab world.
Truly nonviolent resistance aims to create an outcome that works for everyone through the recognition that only solutions that work for everyone are sustainable. Any solution that is forced on another person, group, or nation simply has too much potential to breed resentment, even hatred, and therefore to backfire at the soonest opportunity of the forced party to seize power again.
This deep commitment to an outcome that works for everyone is the connecting link between nonviolent resistance and dialogue. Dialogue, unlike nonviolent resistance, requires two (or more) people or groups that are in agreement to talk with each other. However, dialogue doesn’t require both parties to agree to be in dialogue, only to agree to talk. The discipline of dialogue, at its heart, is a commitment to make dialogue possible, to continue to pursue the goal of an outcome that truly works for everyone even when others are only looking out for their own interest.
Dialogue and Conversation
“Most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of a witness.” — Margaret Millar
“Dialogue is a conversation … the outcome of which is unknown.” — Martin Buber
While every dialogue is a conversation, not every conversation is a dialogue. What are the features that distinguish dialogue from other forms of conversation? If we accept Buber’s characterization of dialogue, what makes it possible for the outcome to be unknown?
Listening: I know I have embraced dialogue when I recognize in me a sense of openness to the other person’s experience. Part of what makes so many conversations different from the true magic of dialogue is that so often we use the time during which others are speaking to think about the next thing we are going to say, without giving our ears and hearts to the person speaking. This is even more pronounced when whoever is speaking is someone whose actions, words, or opinions we are opposing. This, after all, is the context for this exploration: dialogue as a response to a situation we don’t like.
Openness to change: An unknown outcome means that something along the way has changed from whatever it was that could have been predicted as an outcome. Especially if we are unhappy with how things are, this willingness takes active dedication and commitment. Without it, I don’t trust my own integrity. If I am unwilling to change, to be affected by what I hear sufficiently to consider options which are new to me, on what grounds am I expecting the other person to change?
Holding everyone’s needs: At bottom, embracing the spirit of dialogue is a commitment to caring for everyone who is part of the dialogue, even if they have taken actions that deeply concern me. I love what I see as the radical gift of this commitment. Without it I could so easily be tempted to impose solutions on a less-than-willing person just because I believe they address my own needs better. With this commitment in place I work for an inclusive solution even when the other person may still be advocating for their needs only. This, to me, is where the strength of the commitment to nonviolence gets tested: I want to be able to hold enough love and trust, both in myself and in the humanity of the other parties, that I will stay the course until we are connected, until we have some solution with which we can all live. I have seen it happen on a small scale, and I continue to have faith that such dialogue is possible at all levels.
Honoring Our Limits
The commitment to dialogue may appear to ask of us to have infinite capacity. Always be open to dialogue? With anyone? About anything? Any time they want it?
I have wrestled with this question for years in various contexts, and just recently I reached some clarity that has helped me put it to rest, at least in part. Key to my peace was the distinction between the openness to shifting through dialogue and the act of having an actual conversation with a particular person. Inner and outer aspects.
As to the act of being in conversation with another, that act happens on the material plane, and is therefore subject to finitude in a way that willingness is not. Willingness, like any inner state, has not limits. Our capacity to schedule, mobilize resources, and create the conditions for dialogue to occur, is humanly limited. I have often seen many of us get so confused by material limitations that we close ourselves down and disengage. If I am going to say “no” to participating in a dialogue, I want absolute honesty with myself that my choice is based on clear assessment of my resources rather than a subtle form of avoidance, closed-heartedness, or any other form of putting a barrier between me and another person.
I have found repeatedly that the experience of openness to dialogue in and of itself is transformative. I can tell the difference, sometimes in a very visceral way, in my body itself, when I am or am not open in that way. I know how attachment feels because I have had so many times now the experience of not having it, and the immense freedom that comes with that. It’s not about not wanting, even wanting passionately; it’s not about not having opinions, even strong ones; it’s not about going along with anything or anyone. It’s simply about the willingness to be affected by what I hear, or even by my own imagination about another’s needs or perspective. It’s about allowing connection with needs, my own and another’s, to be the moving force of life, the source of creative strategies.