Finding Our Common Humanity in Political Dialogue

Congress%20%28both%20houses%29 - Finding Our Common Humanity in Political Dialogue
At some point, an inability to work together is a psychological problem

Partisan politics reached a new low in the summer of 2011, most notably with the horrendous goings-on surrounding the debt-ceiling crisis. And afterwards, most of pundits seemed to believe that no one really won, although John Boehner, the House Speaker, claimed he got “98 percent” of what he wanted, according to CBS News. Some felt the Tea Partiers won because the government essentially stopped working but many Tea Party members just wanted the debate over with so they could move on with their own lives. “I wanted it over, one way or the other, because of the impact it would have had on the stock market,” said Dan Prosser, 60, a consultant and a Tea Party supporter in Texas in an article in The New York Times following the debt-ceiling crisis resolution (The New York Times, August 2, 2011). “I thought they were playing with my future” (The New York Times, August 2, 2011).

What became abundantly clear to anyone actually paying attention to such things was that throughout the so-called negotiation process, many people were talking—and posturing—but no one was listening. There was no actual dialogue taking place. So how could we possibly expect any other outcome than the one we got?

In his essay “Dialogue,” Martin Buber (1947/2000) explained that there are actually three kinds of dialogue. The first, he said, is genuine dialogue, “where each of the participants really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between himself and them” (p. 22). This genuine dialogue can be spoken or silent. Technical dialogue, the second type, is primarily for objective understanding—the exchange of basic facts. The third type is monologue disguised as dialogue, where Buber said that two or more people speak “in strangely tortuous and circuitous ways and yet imagine they have escaped the torment of being thrown back on their own resources” (p. 22). In other words, they somehow convince themselves they are engaging in dialogue and communicating when they are really only listening to the sounds of their own voices.

This third type, according to Buber (1947/2000), manifests in forms very familiar to the political process—debates, conversations, friendly chats, and what he calls the “lovers’ talks” (p. 23). Buber’s definition of a debate is where a thought is expressed in such as way to both maximize the impact of the point and deny the listener room to disagree. In a conversation, Buber said both parties are merely trying to create an impression—neither actually wants to communicate anything of real substance. Friendly chats take place when each person presumes him- or herself to be the absolute authority and the other marginal, and thus neither is listening to the other. Finally, in the lovers’ talks, neither partner is listening because both are too busy celebrating their individual gloriousness.

Buber (1947/2000) explained that genuine dialogue is very rare. In today’s partisan politics, it seems to be nonexistent. What this seems to indicate is that politicians are treating one another in Buberian (1970/1996) terms as I-Its. There is no apparent respect for one another’s otherness or personhood. One cannot engage in genuine dialogue with another human being if one is treating that human being as a mere object—as something less than human. Genuine dialogue occurs when people strive to engage in what Buber calls I-Thou relationships, where one person acknowledges the other’s subjectivity at the very least, and at best, sees and respects that person’s inner divinity.

So why can’t politicians recognize and respect one another’s common humanity? Why can they not see their fellow politicians and indeed their constituents as all wanting the same thing—to be happy to end their suffering, as Buddhists might phrase it? Is it a need for food stamps or unemployment or social security or Medicare that makes one less than human to some, or is it a voracious need to hold on to one’s own wealth, power, and position at any costs that makes one less than human?

In their discussion of the phenomenological method, Giorgi and Giorgi (2003) describe the qualities that “cupness” and discuss what qualities you might take away from a cup and still have it retain its cupness. It is the same question one must ask with humanness when one listens to conservative pundits like Ann Coulter who call those needing social services “animals” on Fox News and liberals who believe that any small compromise crushes everything they have fought for in the past.

In “The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living” (1998) Howard Cutler shares some of the Dalai Lama’s method of “shifting perspective on ‘the enemy’” (p. 185) in practice when Cutler describes his run-in with an annoying woman on a plane. Cutler explained he took an immediate dislike to this woman for no really good reason but the more he envisioned spending the next five hours sandwiched between her and another man taking up more than his share of space on the other side, Cutler’s annoyance grew. He said he tried every technique he could think of, such as thinking if she reminded him of anyone he knew and envisioning her as a cherished benefactor, but nothing worked—he still just hated her. Finally, he looked down at her hand and noticed her hand “encroaching on the armrest” (p. 186). He asked himself:

Do I hate that thumbnail? Not really. It was just an ordinary thumbnail. Unremarkable. Next, I glanced at her eye and asked myself: Do I really hate that eye? Yes, I did. (Of course, for no good reason—which is the purest form of hate). I focused in closer. Do I hate that pupil? No. Do I hate that cornea, that iris, that sclera? No. So, do I really hate that eye? I had to admit that I didn’t. I felt that I was on to something. I moved on to a knuckle, a finger, a jaw, an elbow. With some surprise I realized that there were parts of this woman that I didn’t hate. Focusing on details, on particulars, instead of overgeneralizations, allowed a subtle internal change, a softening. This shift of perspective tore an opening in my prejudice, just wide enough to look at her as simply another human being. (p. 186).

Rumor has it that even politicians have thumbnails and scleras. So maybe it’s time to focus on those details so we can open a genuine dialogue.

— Sarah Kass

Read more posts by Sarah Kass


Buber, M. (1947/2000). Between man and man. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Buber, M. (1970/1996). I and thou. New York: Touchstone.

Giorgi, A., & Giorgi, B. (2003). The descriptive phenomenological psychological method. In Camic, P.M., Rhodes, J.E. & Yardley, Y. (Eds.), Qualitative research in psychology: Expanding perspectives in methodology and design (pp. 243-273). American Psychological Association.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama & Cutler, H. C. (1998). The art of happiness: A handbook for living. New York: Riverhead Books.

Zernike, Z. (2011, August, 2). News analysis That monolithic Tea Party just wasn’t there. The New York Times [online edition].

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