Dark Days for Dialogue?

With so many crucial and important issues facing society today – from nuclear threats, to health crises, to record suicide rates and widespread disconnection, to increasing mass shootings – even if we could talk about these issues together, it would be a deadly serious time….

But, of course, we can’t even do that.

Recently, one of my colleagues, Dr. Martin Carcasson, head of the Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation, mentioned in a phone call, “we cannot talk about any issue right now.”

This is not an uncommon sentiment. What is happening to the world right now?

Over the last year, one of the dialogue experts I most respect, has publicly admitted that he has “no stomach for dialogue” these days and raised reasons why he suspects these may be “dark days for dialogue.”

Though I do not share John’s political leanings, I share his fundamental concern about our basic capacity to listen, to wonder, to be curious….

For myself, I’ve been curious and confused: For a time so desperately in need of deeper understanding, why do people seem to care so little?

It really makes no sense….UNTIL you start to look at who is dictating the terms of most public conversations these days.

The biggest problem facing dialogue today. Since graduate school, I’ve been fascinated by Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s famous teaching (translated & paraphrased): “When one way of thinking becomes dominant enough, it renders other options unthinkable.”

Andrew Robinson, at the University of Nottingham School of Politics, explained that this occurs when “a hegemonic class is able to establish the conditions for its own existence as universal principles and as a worldview.” He adds, “If one group becomes entirely hegemonic, other conceptions of the world become virtually unthinkable” (2004 Lecture on Gramsci / Gramsci’s Philosophy).

Legal scholar Douglas Litowitz elaborated that this kind of “domination requires the establishment of an entire way of life as standard and expected… and the subtle establishment of the prevailing ideology as natural and inevitable, indeed commonsensical.”  He adds that “When domination reaches the internal world of the actors, resistance is almost unthinkable,” before citing Raymond Williams’ insight that hegemony extends to “a whole body of practices and expectations, over the whole of living. . . . thus constitut[ing] a sense of reality for most people in the society.” (Gramsci, Hegemony, and the Law, 2000 BYU Law Review, p. 528)

Phil Burton-Cartledge at the University of Derby shared additional thoughts about how Gramsci envisioned this kind of all-powerful (hegemonic) story arising:  “Academics, journalists, politicians and even celebrities define the parameters of public discourse, promote certain forms of common sense, provide spectacles (be they political or ‘harmless’ entertainment), and so on. This has the effect of naturalising existing conditions, co-opting radical grievances and protest, and seeing off alternatives through a mix of rendering them absurd/unthinkable/unworkable and/or crowding them out” (2010 Gramsci, Intellectuals and Class).

Gramsci himself noted that the creation of a hegemonic story was “characterized by the combination of force and consent variously balancing one another, without force exceeding consent too much.” He added, “Indeed one tries to make it appear that force is supported by the consent of the majority, expressed by the so-called organs of public opinion ­newspapers and associations” (P. The Gramsci Reader, Selected Writings 1916-1935, Edited by David Forgacs, p. 261).

Gramsci also highlighted: “The realization of a hegemonic apparatus, in so far as it creates a new ideological terrain, determines a reform of consciousness …when one succeeds in introducing a new morality in conformity with a new conception of the world…one determines a reform of the whole of philosophy.”

My Marxist friends Arthur & Phil will no doubt be amused to see their religious conservative friend citing a philosopher and politician of their ilk. But as Mormons are encouraged to do since Brigham & Joseph’s day[1], wherever truth exists, I embrace it – and in this case, Gramsci’s ominous insight seems exceedingly relevant and timely…(especially for anyone who identifies as conservative).

Conservative as the new counter-culture. Truly and unmistakably, we are living in a day when the “whole of philosophy” of society continues to be “reformed” away from orthodox Judeo-Christian standards toward a “new conception of the world.”

This new conception has become so widespread, so generally accepted and so dominant that it has rendered many Judeo-Christian ideals as, yes, “absurd, unthinkable and unworkable” – thus, effectively “crowding them out.”

This has happened, in part, because many orthodox believers have been scared into silence.  Theologian Stanley Hauerwas once suggested that conservative Christians lost the 1970’s debate around abortion because they simply didn’t participate (sufficiently) in the larger public conversation about sex and related topics: “By ceding the terms of the debate, the debate got framed in ways that made the failure of conservative Christianity a foregone conclusion.” (Sex in Public: How Adventurous Christians Are Doing It; The Hauerwas Reader).

And Elder Quentin Cook recently warned about what happens in a “vacuum” of religious voices. He went on to say, “the voices of people of faith need to be heard and amplified.When this is done, it creates a pause in the discourse and allows people to evaluate where they stand on a particular matter. Silence allows the rhythm of negativity to continue uninterrupted and unchallenged. This erodes the confidence of people of faith.”

Everywhere I look, on virtually every issue most human beings care about (mental health, spirituality, sexuality, family, environment, democracy), there seems to be little-to-no “pause” in the interrupted and relentless rhetoric coming from  loud (often industry-funded) voices: voices which have successfully framed the terms of most national conversations to a point that the failure of other options remains a “forgone conclusion.”

In this way, truth (the full truth) becomes unthinkable.  

This blog – and my own life’s work – is dedicated to broadening these conversations so all possibilities can at least be heard.  

Lest that sounds grandiose, let me add that as a Christian, I do not believe that will fully be possible until Jesus comes again to rein on earth. On that day, we can truly have a fair and open conversation across differences. And dialogue will flourish across the world.

Until then, the powerful multi-billion dollar juggernaut systems will have their day and continue to sway most people.

But not all.

There are far too many still looking for a more satisfying, reassuring and redemptive truth about the suffering that plagues our communities and homes.

Precisely for that reason, believers are under obligation to speak truth – and draw as many people to that truth as we can.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?!



[1] The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “Mormonism is truth.… The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or … being … prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men.” [Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (2007), 264].

Brigham Young added, “All truth is for the salvation of the children of men—for the benefit and learning….Be willing to receive the truth, let it come from whom it may; no difference, not a particle… all I want is to know the truth.”  He continued on another occasion, “’Mormonism,’ so -called, embraces every principle pertaining to life and salvation, for time and eternity. No matter who has it. If the infidel has got truth it belongs to ‘Mormonism.’ The truth and sound doctrine possessed by the sectarian world, and they have a great deal, all belong to this Church. As for their morality, many of them are, morally, just as good as we are. All that is good, lovely, and praiseworthy belongs to this Church and Kingdom. “Mormonism” includes all truth….I want to say to my friends that we believe in all good. If you can find a truth in heaven, earth or hell, it belongs to our doctrine. We believe it; it is ours; we claim it…Our religion is simply the truth. It is all said in this one expression—it embraces all truth, wherever found, in all the works of God and man that are visible or invisible to mortal eye.” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (1997), 14-20, “Chapter 2: The Gospel Defined,”14–20