Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On Dialogue

This piece is excerpted from an op-ed by Stephen Mutoro, in the Kenyan newspaper, "The Standard" (2/11/08). Although it was written to address the international attempts to calm the post-election violence in Kenya, the piece has implications for the Israel Palestine impasse as well. Everyone talks about dialogue, says Mutoro, but few stop to think what useful dialogue should be about.

"A dialogue to write home about is one in which parties to a given dispute do not aim at merely winning their respective goals. It is about achieving a "common ground" through careful understanding of both positions. It is also about accommodating the other party without overly compromising one's strongest principles.

Common ground is a position at which warring parties derive genuinely shared values, beliefs, concerns and interests. Debates are neither about empathy nor connective listening to the other party. They are about detecting and zeroing in on the purported weaknesses and errors on the opposing side.

When protagonists accuse and counter-accuse each other, point fingers and appear to intimidate their opponents under the guise of winning favour, they are simply debating.

But what exactly are weaknesses of dialogue as a process? The first pitfall of dialogue is that it assumes that both parties are actually wrong or right on a matter under dispute. That assumption is largely deceptive.

According to Jonathan Kuttab, an experienced dialogue expert on the Israel-Palestine conflict, individuals engaged in dialogue tend to gloss over basic conflict issues. They appear rather "prone to be very reasonable, sensitive, wonderful people, and they feel a desperate urgency to have everybody agree with everyone else".

What is more? They have a natural tendency to avoid "tough and rough" issues. Most commonly, they would appear to worry more about the less pertinent issues.

Another dark side of those who switch into a dialogue mode is that they appear to succumb to pressure to compromise on issues of principle for which both sides passionately hold dear. To have to come together, such dialoguers must accept some necessary "moral evil".

Some people take dialogue for a substitute of action. To them a dialogue is too important that it is deemed an end in itself. As such, there is often too much unrealistic expectation pegged on dialogue. Even the media often moves its spotlight from the oppressed, victims and those vulnerable. The danger with such a development is that should the said dialogue collapse, all hell would break loose -with fewer available options.

Dialogue often calls for an unjust co-option. In political scenarios, it is called 'power-sharing'. In the example of the biblical case of King Solomon resolving the case of the two women laying a spirited claim to one child - "power-sharing" can be akin to literally splitting the proverbial child into two to be unduly 'shared' by the two when it actually belongs to one of them.

For these reasons, a proper model of dialogue is often elusive and the most difficult to call. But what exactly are the ingredients of a proper dialogue?

Firstly, genuine dialogue is premised on the need to seek nothing but the truth. Falsifying issues for the sake of a temporary accommodation often has severe reprisals.

In seeking the truth, it is better going for the real protagonists and not necessarily settle for 'moderates' or 'like-minded' negotiators for a quick fix. It never works that way. If it works, it won't last.

Secondly, a good dialogue process is one that is devoid of panaceas. It does not attempt to find a "magic" formula as a way out of the impasse. The need to have negotiators agree across the board -and have them consult their principals at every stage -cements the possibility of possible cracks in future.

Thirdly, one party should not manipulate the other for personal or short-term benefits.

Finally, having the 'bigger picture' in mind as either side engages in dialogue has the potential to shift hardliners from narrow selfish and partisan position to a society's or a country's national interest."

The writer is the chief executive officer, the Kenya Alliance of Resident Associations

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