The power of dialogue, divergence and doing

Modern ethics arose out the philosophical questions of morality, right or wrong and about treatment of other people. In today’s world where we are more exposed to other’s pain and suffering, we are constantly trying to understand and overcome not just other’s pain but our own. Masao Yakuta, says, ‘One of the deepest forms of pain is the pain of separation. (SGI quarterly, April 2002, p 10). So how do we deal with this pain which starts from the time our umbilical cords are cut? To overcome this pain, strangely enough we create behaviours and barriers that we think distance us from this vulnerability such as anger, arrogance and superiority. We tend to emphasise our differences rather than connections. Yet obviously it is only through connection that we can overcome the pain of separation. The way human beings can make an immediate connection to another is through dialogue. Dialogue as tool for engagement and for furthering our understanding has been used for many thousands of years, from the Eastern traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism to the Socratic methods of posing questions.

As an architect, I have worked in many parts of the world where there is conflict and inequality. Conflict and inequality exist not just in poor countries or those with civil unrest but also in rich, democratic and stable countries, as I have described in my book, Architecture for Rapid Change and Scarce Resources (Routledge, 2012). Although we have had two major world wars in the last century, today’s wars may be smaller but equally vicious and more widely spread. The only reason I have been able to work in areas of conflict and unrest is through using the power of dialogue. I am not going to say that it is entirely safe or that one has to be naively trusting but through talking we can make the process of work easier and safer. This technique works equally well in a ‘safe’ office environment. However, talking takes time and understanding another’s position takes even more time. So while it looks like this is a slow process, ultimately this is the direct and best route. After all Gandhi, Mandela and many others have demonstrated the power of dialogue in overcoming impossible situations.

In Nichiren Buddhism, there is a concept called ‘cherry, peach, plum and apricot’ which signifies that we are all different. Our differences give rise to divergent thinking. The purpose of dialogue is not convergent thinking but divergent thinking. Many different mind sets and experiences bring a plethora of opinions and views to the table, and the discussion and debate that follow give rise to new solutions to old problems. There is no ‘one truth’- we have opinions and these opinions must inform us of the best action to take for ourselves and for greater good. However, if we stick to our opinion as if it were the ‘truth’ even in the evidence to the contrary, then we are in deep trouble because sure enough something will happen to make us examine this truth again. We will then need to invent another truth to cover up that failure. So we might as well surrender to the power of our vulnerability, to our pain and find creative solutions from that.

The final report into theĀ investigation of the American guards’ behavior at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, described following aspects that allows a particular group to feel superior over the other-

  • ‘Deindividuation’: the anonymity, suggestibility, and contagion provided in a crowd that allows individuals to participate in behavior marked by temporary suspension of customary rules and inhibitions.
  • ‘Groupthink’ is characterized by two main kinds of illusions-
    first of invulnerability, i.e. group members believe that the group is special and morally superior; therefore its decisions are sound; and secondly that of unanimity which members assume all are in concurrence and pressure is brought on to those who might dissent.
  • Dehumanization: Individuals and groups are viewed as less than fully human
  • Moral exclusion: one group views the other as fundamentally different, therefore prevailing moral rules and practices apply to one group but not the other.

Although we are not working in these extreme conditions, we are constantly being exposed to similar situations in everyday life, perhaps even in our homes and offices. These situations are opportunities for us to examine our own behaviours and correct them. After all the prison guards in Abu Ghraib prison were also people just like us, yet by considering themselves separate and superior to others, they went down to the level of inhuman behaviours. By dialogue and consideration of diverse views, we can overcome common problems. So I am not disappointed when I see photos of Aung San Suu Kyi talking to the generals who imprisoned her, as many people were.

Finally by actually working in these conditions, one can really describe the reality. Armchair activists have many opinions but are those informed by experience? I have deep respect for those who have actually ‘walked the talk’. Working in areas of conflict is not the easiest thing to do-even the smallest project or pieces of agreement that are reached, conclude through months and years of dialogue. The UN’s work is thus a long affair but they and many NGOs are the only organisations that one can rely on to do ‘peace-keeping’ and working in conflict zones. Whether the dialogue is across the table or across a trench, peace in many parts of the world, including the Middle-east, is dependent upon dialogue and doing. If we stop talking, it is then that we need to feel afraid. By not speaking we separate and by keeping talking, no matter how hurtful it may be to our ego, we connect. As Joan Anderson says, ‘In fact dialogue is the only legitimate weapon for realising peace’. (ibid)