Dialogue, not debate, is needed for democracy

Productive conversation is crucial to understand each other and the world

PHOTO: Christina / Unsplash

by Madeleine Chan, Opinions Editor

I really couldn’t pinpoint when social media became such a tiring vortex of people just screaming their opinions, hoping that others will scream back. This kind of chaos is also so prevalent in the realm of politics, with heated, daily attacks now being common from politicians on all sides. Not to mention how seemingly structured formal debates that occur around election seasons only result in insult and injury. We can’t continue to express our opinions in this cyclical black hole of unproductiveness. Introducing dialogue, the idea of productive conversation, is necessary to ensure the survival of healthy democratic practice.

Having a conversation focused on dialogue means that you are openly listening and exploring, with the goal of learning and understanding other perspectives and experiences. With debates, the end goal is to “win,” to get some sort of prize, recognition, or just the satisfaction that you bested the other person. If a goal in a conversation is only to be the best, then what is the point of having the conversation? Dialogue not only provides space for open discussion, meaning that no one is on a particular “side,” but it also allows for error and for someone to not be faulted if they get something wrong or stumble. It also doesn’t see any opinion as “wrong” or of a lesser quality, just because it is different from the prevailing thought.

Debates do have the ability to provide structure and clarity to a conversation, however they can also be restricting in their format. Dialogue allows for a flexibility and openness that can’t be explored in a structured back-and-forth debate. This has the potential to create deeper understanding and empathy between conversants. 

The idea of dialogue isn’t a new phenomenon, either. I won’t lecture on the importance of the public sphere, I’ll save that for communication professors. Though, the idea of a place where people are dedicated to taking time to converse with the intent to foster change dates back to — in the eurocentric world — the 18th century. A more recent example of this is SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, which has been engaging with the idea since 2000. Now, this concept just needs to be more broadly engaged with by the general public.

In action, greater consideration of dialogue over debate would look like engaging with empathy and understanding. Imagine elections where candidates aim to understand each other’s points of view rather than diminishing them, and a social media sphere filled with substantive comments that add to continuing conversations about important social issues. Simply, a democratic ideal where all voices are heard and considered equally. This absolutely does not mean that prejudiced beliefs like white supremacy should now be considered. But, in general, that conversation should be held where people can understand instead of hastily shutting down any opinion that they don’t also hold.

Implementing greater practice of dialogue won’t magically solve our problems, but it puts us on the path to a better understanding of them, our own opinions, and how to deal with them. Next time you have a burning thought, consider speaking, not shouting. Who knows, maybe someone will even speak with instead of at you. 

Watch the-peak.ca for a recurring, web-exclusive Opinions in Dialogue segment where SFU students engage in casual dialogue about various topics concerning SFU and the world.