To Dialogue Or Not To Dialogue?

The Corbynmania debates over who sat with and talked to whom about what raises a wider issue about dialogue itself: I’ve noted numerous occasions over the last couple of years when reasonable people have found themselves in dialogue with racists, fascists and theocrats or even, in the case of people who really dislike Jews and / or Israel, all of these at the same time. I’ve spent about 20 years in varying forums of interfaith and intercommunal dialogue and have, largely, found it a rewarding process that has built many good friendships. However, I’ve come to accept on the basis of overwhelming evidence and considerable hard-earned personal experience that despite the benefits of dialogue, there are numerous individuals and groups who engage in dialogue not for the benefit of dialogue, but for tactical reasons; people and groups who lie. They engage in bad faith, not disclosing their real motivations and larger strategy. I’ve had issues with closet and explicit religious extremists, with kiruv (outreach) practitioners, revolutionary socialists and with self-described “radical progressives” of all stripes. I’ve had slightly different arguments with unrepentant nationalists and borderline fascists, although they don’t usually claim to be engaging in dialogue. Ideologically they don’t have room for the concept - it would require them to consider others’ needs.

But what I do see over and over again, is how the truly unpleasant individuals and groups rely on a protective carapace of moderate, well-meaning people who are just fed up and want some kind of change, any change, if just to break the cycle of politics or violence that promises progress while delivering entropy and stalemate. These people are not naive, they are intelligent people, but somehow they have bought into the following arguments as absolute:

1. Dialogue is a precondition to peace and understanding.
2. Dialogue is always necessary, no matter what you think of the views of your dialogue partners.
3. We cannot move forward without dialogue, so channels must always remain open.
4. Talking to people is not the same as supporting and embracing them.
5. If you don’t engage with people, how are you to change their minds?

It is my contention that these arguments are fundamentally flawed as absolutes:

  1. “Dialogue is a precondition to peace and understanding — but only if these are the objectives of all participants.” If one set of participants (call them Party X) actually seeks victory and, by extension, the defeat of the other part icipants, the dialogue is merely a way to distract their opponents to that end. It is entirely possible and, indeed, excellent strategy, to use others (Party Y) as a protective screen or auxiliary force to disguise Party X’s objective — and it will be more successful if Party Y believe that they share the same objectives as Party X. “Solidarity” has proven to be a highly effective means of gaining this cooperation. Hence you will see trade unionists expressing solidarity with clerical fascists who shoot trade unionists without trial.
  2. “Dialogue is always necessary, no matter what you think of the views of your dialogue partners.” Again, we have to consider the objectives concerned. If Party X’s ultimate objective is to secure the submission or death of its opponents, which it considers a Divine mandate, this objective will not be relinquished because of dialogue, unless Party X has a complete change of objective. In such cases, it may be far more effective to convince them by other means that that objective is not achievable. To this end, it must be considered that if you have no way to convince Party X that their objective is impossible, you are wasting your time talking to them. I seriously wonder if religiously moderate or non-religious people who speak with religious extremists understand this. For instance, there is no way Reform Jews are ever going to convince haredim (ultra-orthodox Jews) that their Judaism is legitimate. All they can really achieve is to convince haredim that Reform Jews cannot be defeated and force them to come to an accommodation. Dialogue, ultimately, is about creating understanding. But if both sides understand each other perfectly well and see no need to accommodate each other further, then what can be the point?
  3. “We cannot move forward without dialogue, so channels must always remain open.” Here, again, I think there is a confusion about what is to be achieved. In the case of Israel talking to Hamas or Iran, clearly there are always diplomatic channels open either directly or indirectly that can be employed. But the point here is that there is a diplomatic process going on, which includes authority to make a deal and indeed to threaten and deliver coercive action or indeed violence. But this cannot move forward unless the parties concerned have the authority to conclude a deal. In the case of Corbynite “dialogue” with the likes of Hezbollah, the Israelis are not involved, so no deal can be contemplated. In short, he doesn’t have the power to deliver anything and therefore it is hard to see what benefit to the ultimate stated aim of “peace” actually is (especially if one participant starts from expressing “solidarity” with his interlocutor together with strong hostility to the non-included party) — therefore the conditions of 1. in respect of ultimate objectives must necessarily come back into play.
  4. “Talking to people is not the same as supporting and embracing them.” Well, no, it isn’t. But what is the purpose of talking to them? What might it achieve? For instance, what are we to talk to the Da’esh about, as someone (guess who) has recently suggested? What can we possibly offer them that is to our mutual benefit? They already think they understand us perfectly well, so they can only seek advantage. Are we to “acknowledge their grievances”? And then what?
  5. “If you don’t engage with people, how are you to change their minds?” This is trumped by point 2. The only way to convince someone that thinks he is on a mission from G!D to encompass your surrender, conversion or death to change his mind is to show him his mistake. If the only person he will listen to is G!D, you’re going to have to speak his language. This, I understand, is how “de-radicalisation” works. It is hard to see how this can be accomplished in an “open” dialogue forum, without the relevant expertise. Generally speaking, moderate, progressive dialoguers do not have such skill or experience in traditional theology or apologetics, for instance. Incidentally, this is the argument used by so-called “non-violent Islamists” that they should be used as go-betweens with actual jihadis. However, the fact that they share many of their explicit and tacit goals ought really to cause us to stop and consider what motivates them in such a situation, other than tactical advantage — they’re playing the long game. It should also cause us to consider which of the explicit and tacit goals of clerical fascists are shared by those from the totalitarian left who engage in dialogue and “solidarity” with them — although there are generally a number of subjects that they can agree on, such as the evils of “the West” and of “Zionism”, that “our crimes are as bad, if not worse, than those we are opposed to”. Otherwise what, exactly, are they hoping to achieve?

Being a management consultant some of the time, I naturally reached for PowerPoint and a 2x2 analytical framework to explain this as a mental model (see below, also to provide an opportunity for derisive laughter).

Where true dialogue happens is when empathy and compassion for yourself is matched by the same feelings for your dialogue partners (I-Thou, for the Buberists). Where many what one might term “extremist progressives” sit is in a space where self-loathing replaces empathy and compassion for one’s own “side”. True extremists, in the totalitarian sense, whether religious or political, sit in the opposite quadrant, whereas amoral diplomats and practitioners of “realpolitik” typically are left to the final one, where empathy and compassion are not to be considered except for their strategic value.

Now here’s where it gets interesting: I think that most “normal” people sit somewhere near the centre, flipping about a bit with context. But here’s the rub — I think you may need to consider that these are in fact two intersecting vectors, “circular diagonals”, if you will, in this model, whereby someone who goes “off the diagram” at one of the points at, say the extreme of “hair shirt”, X, may well show up at Y, as an extreme partisan. A good example of this would be, say, George Galloway. By the same token, someone who disappears at the extreme of “true dialogue”, A, becoming truly dispassionate and transcending the personal, may well show up at B and make quite an effective mediator or, indeed diplomat. I’m not sure if these are two-way paths, but the experience of ex-radicals becoming highly effective critics of their previous extremism would suggest so. This is no doubt a simplistic model (a kabbalistic one would no doubt be more effective) but it certainly shows how not all dialogue is equal and its relationship with diplomacy.

I think there is a confusion between dialogue and diplomacy. The two are not the same and I believe they are being confused. Diplomats have an objective and a mandate, as well as a certain amount of authority to make deals. Dialogue partners do not. What do progressive dialoguers think they can achieve, in dialogue with someone whose technical vocabulary and worldview they cannot analyse? What can they deliver, if sharing their mere humanity and their aims for global peace and so forth is not sufficient to change minds? What are they enabling, if their dialogue partners are engaging for tactical advantage? If the Da’esh is willing to behead an Alan Henning, or Hamas to throw their political opponents off roofs, or why should they listen to any sort of politician or activist from a liberal democracy? How does one compromise with proponents of religious genocide “half-way”? This, in my view, is why many dialoguers have become camouflage, a fig-leaf — they are, effectively, pawns in a larger game. They have failed to understand the purpose of dialogue and are, instead, engaged in a conflict whose rules they do not understand and whose existence they are, for the most part, unaware of.