Reflections from Boris van Meurs on the ARCHAIC session with Judith Floor on “dialogues” the 26th of June 2022.
In the current political turmoil, the call for a dialogue rings with archaic overtones. When outraged farmers threaten politicians in the Netherlands, when the right to bodily self-determination is abolished in the United States, when Russian troops march through a devastated Ukraine, when, in short, violence or the threat of violence looms around each corner, who can still believe in the power of listening? And yet, the rule of violence will never find in itself a justification, which means that after – or perhaps even during – mute violence the need for words arises again, hand in hand with the need to be heard. Each act of communication contains, if only in potentiality, the constitution of a shared world of meaning. The art of dialogue is, I believe, that art that prepares the ground for such a shared world to grow roots.
In this session of the ARCHAIC, we discussed professor Noëlle Aarts’ oration lecture, The Art of Dialogue (2015), introduced by post-doc researcher Judith Floor. Here, my aim is to capture the central thought of our reflections that dialogues are open-ended, that they require willingness, as well as a recognized shared problem. I will do so by shortly situating Aarts’s work and our discussion, after which I will share reflections by members of the ARCHAIC on the possibilities and dilemma’s of dialogue in their own work.
The art of dialogue
Noëlle Aarts, professor in Socio-Ecological Interactions, investigates how inter-human processes of organization lead to sustainable changes. Dialogues are one of the tools on which she has focused, and in her inaugural lecture she defines dialogue in reference to quantum physicist David Bohm, who thought of it as “a stream of meaning flowing among, through and between us” . More specifically, a dialogue is form of communication in which “nobody is trying to win,” which sets it apart from debates and discussions . In a dialogue, the answer to the question under discussion is presumed to be open, truly open, which means that all participants are invited to think together and inquire about each other’s positions without a specific aim or conclusion in mind. Although dialogue demands willingness and trust, there are still certain conflicts in which it is a logical and useful tool.
Dialogue is demanding because it is a unique form of communication, that requires preparation and willingness; it is far from an easy fix for difficult political problems. In a dialogue, participants cannot ‘defend’ their position, at least not in an attempt to convince the other party. They should see a need to suspend their own interests, if only to listen to the other for a moment. Next, participants should therefore also feel secure enough within the process to temporarily put rhetoric on pause. That is, they should trust the organizer and supervisor of the dialogue to acknowledge and respect the different perspectives well. These qualities make dialogue something else entirely than debate or discussion, which are more confrontational, polemical, and in which there are clear ‘sides’ trying to convince the other or the present audience that their vision is the right one.
One might therefore think that dialogue can only take place if there is no real conflict, for conflict spawns distrust and seems to take us in the direction of debate or discussion. Still, in our conversation on Aarts’s text, this was not the conclusion we drew. Judith mentioned examples in which thorough entanglement of participants in a dragging conflict urged all those involved to organize a dialogue, to try and open up the problem space to find new ways forward. Indeed, if there is no impending victory for any of the stakeholders in a conflict, all have something to gain in getting to know the positions of the others. If dialogue is about truths that can only be reached by gathering together multiple parties, then it makes sense that entanglement is one reason why parties are drawn to the table.
How useful is dialogue as a tool for us, member of the ARCHAIC? What tensions do we encounter? After our discussion, I asked my fellow ARCHAIC members what they see as the possibilities and limitations of dialogue in their fields.
Dialogue needs to be an open space; politics is about taking decisions and influencing others. Judith Floor, who introduced the text and topic, pointed out the tension between the two. “There are always power dynamics in conversations… How to include, as a facilitator of a dialogue, all relevant actors without enforcing the perspectives of powerful actors that aim the status quo?”
Likewise, Maria Karssenberg, PhD researcher at the university of Glasgow, wondered what you as facilitator or researcher should do when dialogue touches upon “a political topic you feel very strongly about:” can you and should you maintain neutrality? Is that fair towards the people you have invited?
Willie Vogel, researcher at TU Delft, co-founder of Studio Inscape, wondered how to move from a regular conversation to a dialogue: what needs to take place to create the room to listen? And, perhaps from her background in architecture, she wondered, “how do you set up the right space where people feel willing to start a dialogue (especially on difficult, conflicting topics)?” In daily life, we hardly pass through places organized as to facilitate dialogues. What would such spaces even look like?
In a similar vein, the question is how academics can communicate in a way that does not cut short the trust of the invitees. What happens, wondered Maria, when academics dialogue with people in the field? Does the use of jargon then not exclude or intimidate those voices that they would like to invite to speak up?
Dialogue requires a shared language. But we do not all speak in the same way, nor do we hope to achieve the same things with words. Maria pointed out the risk of a confusion of tongues in Babel-like fashion in open dialogue among researchers from different faculties. “How to,” Maria asked herself, “translate academic jargon from one discipline to another,” if we are engaging in interdisciplinary dialogue?
Iva Pesa, historian at the RUG, added from her experiences with oral history, that “dialogue can prove extremely insightful in grasping people’s attitudes towards environmental transformation.” Because it is open-ended, people can express their views, which “allow[s] researchers to really gauge [their] perceptions.” Still, Iva perceives an immediate tension in this. “Researchers are quite bad with open-endedness. They have a particular research goal in mind and find it difficult to let the conversation flow in new directions.” When reality escapes the confines of our research project, the academic frame of mind can get in the way of “listen[ing] REALLY well.”
Listening really well: one cannot do that over the noise of tractor motors revving, one cannot do that in the political rhetoric of a higher court, one cannot do that when the bombs fall. Dialogue, “the art of thinking together” , depends on a silence, on safety, on willingness to look for other means than violence to explore possible futures together. It is a fragile, but unique intervention in a social reality fraught with ideology and conflict, and it is what keeps the project of shared world on the horizon, even if it will always have to struggle to make this world become actual once the safe space of the dialogue is once more suspended by the sounds of everyday.
 Bohm, David. 1990. On Dialogue. New York: Routledge.
 Aarts, Noëlle. 2015. The Art of Dialogue. Inaugural lecture at Wagening University.
 Isaacs, William. 1999. Dialogue and the art of thinking together. New York: Doubleday.