Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The more we talk with people, the easier it becomes to learn how to bridge our differences

“Those who at least recognize that they may have all kinds of unconscious prejudices are likely to engage far more amicably in intercultural dialogue than those who are convinced that they have no prejudices,” SGI President Daisaku Ikeda wisely points out. He goes on to say that “When we stop reflecting on ourselves and asking ourselves questions . . . we don’t listen to others and cannot engage in dialogue. Dialogue for peace starts with a humble and honest dialogue with ourselves.” (December 1, 2001 World Tribune, pg. 10)

The Soka Gakkai International (SGI) has a strong tradition of dialogue, created by Daisaku Ikeda. Since the 1970s, Ikeda has met with many revolutionary thinkers and activists to demonstrate ways in which we can work together with people who have different beliefs than us. (The complete list of Ikeda’s published dialogues is available here.)

The purpose of dialogue is to find ways to meet in the middle to negotiate regarding issues we may not agree on, and thus learn from and expand our thinking through our exploration of our different viewpoints.

At the April 14 Vanguard Discussion series event on “Respect for the Dignity of Life,” which I wrote about in-depth here and here, facilitator Carolyn Ferrari prompted us to reflect on the challenges of relating with people different than ourselves in our current national culture which is deeply divided by the “existential division of self and other.”

I gave the example of having to assign a value-judgment to every aspect of ourselves and to each other. Even if a person is giving unsolicited praise, having to insist that “you’re this and I’m that” often makes people feel alienated and misunderstood, by implying that we and our attributes must be ranked against other people—And that when ranked against another set of people, there is always the risk we'll come out with a lower ranking.

Assigning value judgments to people, religions, careers, economic status, and so forth is an affront to human dignity. Dignity has been defined as “the quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect,” as Carolyn pointed out, and such dignity should be treated as an inalienable right, not conditioned on how we are ranked when compared with other people by using our religions, ethnicities, cultures, careers, nations, or personal opinions as criteria.

One of the most damaging forms of this is the rankings assigned by race, as Vanguard panelist Daniel Moen pointed out. Last year he wrote a report about the “the youth, the media, and its effects on race,” for which he interviewed dozens of people. “The biggest thing I realized,” he said, is that a lot of people “on both sides were actually more terrified of trying to bridge” their differences, “because of the fact they were afraid they’d be judged.” He said his friends who are white were “terrified of talking about race” because they feared being labeled racist. His studies got even more interesting when he realized that his friends of color were just as hesitant to discuss race in the larger intercultural context.

He realized that “They actually have more in common than they realize,” and that one way to help us get through these restrictions and judgments is for us to bear in mind that “individuals are not the representative of the whole,” meaning that it is not correct to judge an entire ethnicity or culture just by the actions of one person or even a group of people.

The only way to start to bridge the self-and-other divide is to talk to people. “Once you start to talk to someone, they become human,” as Susie Beber paraphrased from a book she read.

To conclude this second installment of the Vanguard Discussion series, Carolyn challenged us to read the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” of the United Nations, and pick one of the rights that we can seek to foster in our communities. She invited people to email her at vanguarddiscussions @ gmail.com with their thoughts, or with ideas for upcoming discussion topics for the Vanguard series.

I look forward to sharing with you about what we come up with when the third event takes place in a few months. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.

Illustration (SGI lotus) by Karla Joy Huber, 2015; Prismacolor marker, white-out pen, Decopage on fabric

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