“Dialogue” beyond Liberal Illusions: from a-Political Surrender to a Hermeneutics of Resistance

Liberals love dialogue. They think that if we just sit down together over tea and coffee, and talk out our divergent needs and interests, that we’ll all bend and compromise to the point where any conflicts are resolved, and we can all just get along.

And they aren’t entirely wrong. In many situations, especially personal situations, even engaging in dialogue is a sort of opening up to others, allowing ourselves to be affected by the needs of others. In dialogues where the implicit rule is to not come off as a jerk, the mere exchange of perspectives can be enough to motivate change.

The key quality of a successful dialogue is that the exchange of perspectives between the parties have a reflexive character. What I mean is that in the dialogue the position of each of the parties bend, or flex, in re-lation to each other. The “re” is both recognition and re-peting. This relation is an integration, a crossing, a crux. Mutually affective, but not in a material or mechanistic sense – after all we are human, cognitive, understanding beings. In the reflexive dialogue our understanding works on our interest and our interest on our understanding, and we engage in a mutual becoming which facilitates new forms of life, new ethical postulates, new I’s and We’s. It is essential is that these transformations are both individually and mutually willed, or at least accepted consensually so that we can imagine transitioning to a point where we do will the compromises. But what is most crucial is that between the parties, a higher and more considered intelligence emerges – we might call it an inter-subjective comprehension of the situation as a whole. If you want to call this a metaphor, that’s fine, but it’s a metaphor for the active role that the relation, rather than the individual parties themselves, play in transforming the interpretation of the situation and therefore the situation itself.

But as was clear from the introduction, in my view the whole liberal project is a little naive. Naive because where there is a need for dialogue, there is often a power imbalance – which itself might a reason why grievances emerged. Asking people to dialogue in a situation where one party has more power than the other is to presume a false equivalency between unequal parties. Even if the stated goal is to overcome the injustices on the table, the effective goal is to normalize the status quo, and to get the weaker parties to accept their oppression as the condition of moderating it. More often than we would like to admit, slight improvements in their situation are offered as the payoff for peacefully acquiescing to the order in which the subordinate group is structurally under-privileged.

From the perspective of dialogue as reflexivity, we can state more precisely what is wrong with dialogue across large imbalances of power. Reflexion is self critique, and mutual critique, but most importantly it is allowing the perspectives of others to affect your own perception of your own needs. But if you are much more powerful than the other you are claiming to “dialogue” with, you don’t need to do this, you don’t need to change your own view of yourself – you can simply make an offer and then say that the cost of not accepting the offer is you will continue to enforce the status quo with your superior force. This is why accepting the status quo is a precondition for dialogue with rebel groups, even when accepting the status quo means accepting the superiority of the stronger party. This can not be called dialogue, it should rather be called discussions regarding the terms of surrender.

In order for dialogue to take place, there must be some equivalency between the parties in their experience of precarity. If your life is in no way precarious, then you have no reason to expose yourself to the possible transformative effects of a genuinely reflexive interchange with another. In inter personal drama, the mutual precarity of losing friends in common, or simply appearing to be a jerk, might be enough to drive both parties into a dialogue and genuine compromise.  However, in dialogues between representatives of groups, the stronger party can only be forced into dialogue if the conflict creates a precarity which is unsustainable for its own members. Thus we should be highly suspicious when governments say they “will not negotiate with terrorists” – because in fact governments can only negotiate with groups which create a precarious situation for their own citizens. A government declaring that it will refuse to negotiate so long as the precariousness situation caused by the attacks is maintained, is effectively declaring that for the sake of avoiding a dialogue with the rebels it is willing to sacrifice whatever human lives that might be lost in the military campaign to wipe out all of the rebel forces, to the point where their ranks are so weakened that they can no longer resist the status quo and will instead sign terms of surrender, or simply return quietly to their unrecognized subordinate position.

Rather than thinking about force and dialogue as opposed to each other, we should see how they work together. Force can prevent the possibility of genuine dialogue, but force that restores a balance of force can restore this possibility. Only precarious lives can dialogue, and in situations where force makes some lives precarious white protecting others, a countervailing force is one of the things that can restore equivalency.

Of course, on the other hand, precarious situations can drive people into recalcitrance, especially if they think they can appeal to their ability to mobilize enough force to blot out the source of their precarity. The anguish of fear is a prime breeding ground for fascism, for tribalist thinking, for racism, sexism, an idealization of the “golden age”, and all forms of cultural inertia. A complete account of the dynamics of reflexive dialogue across different situations of force would require unpacking this tendency, and distinguishing more closely what forms of precarity motivate entry into reflexive dialogue, compared to which tend towards greater and more self-destructive appeals to might-as-right. It is, however, possible that the difference between these reactions is not a matter of external factors, but the internal decision and freedom of the members of the society under pressure.

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