Who's afraid of dialogue?Humility and critical thinking help individuals and nations alike to engage in a mutually beneficial experience of truth-seeking with the other.
'We live in terror because dialogue is no longer possible', the French philosopher-writer Albert Camus lamented sometime around the middle of the last century. Camus's concern was that, inter alia, the age of abstractions, bureaucracies and machines had inspired people to think that only they are right; that they would not entertain the ideas of others. For those who could live only with dialogue and the friendship of others, Camus believed, the silence brought about by the unwillingness to engage with others meant the end of the world.
A century earlier, the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar had approached the same problem differently as he wrote in his ghazal: 'Baat karni mujhe mushkil kabhi aisi to na thi/ Jaise ab hai teri mehfil kabhi aisi to na thi' (It wasn’t so difficult for me to talk in your presence before/ Being in your company never confused my sense before). Between Camus and Shah Zafar, though, there is a fundamental difference of context: The French philosopher was lamenting the loss of dialogism in a politically volatile world in the backdrop of World War II; the Indian poet-king was addressing his beloved in the make-believe world of romance. The former's is a context of alienation, distrust and hatred; the latter's, of submission, trust and love. Both conditions eliminate the possibility of meaningful dialogue.
Although it costs nearly nothing for two parties to engage in a dialogue with each other, it has rich dividends. But, as a fundamental tool for humans to engage with and know about each other, dialogue requires both parties to have epistemic humility—a virtue that allows you to understand the other but also makes you aware of the limits of your own knowledge—to create a level-playing field for dialogue between the two. If you do not have the humility to listen to the other, you do not have the moral standing to speak. It is the lack of such humility that seems to be plaguing Nepali politics today.
Table for two
Trying as they are to defeat each other in an all-out war for political power, KP Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the two 'co-pilots' of the ruling Nepal Communist Party, appear keen to let their metaphorical jet crash land if needed, rather than work together to land it safely. For Oli, retaining the positions of prime minister and party chief are non-negotiable. He likes to make an impression that he is keen only to speak and not listen. He often leaves meetings right after making his point, as if there's nothing to be gained by listening to his comrades. In so doing, he fails to acknowledge that the art of speaking comes loaded with the art of listening. The other hand on the yoke, on his part, doesn’t seem to be in the mood to budge until Oli forfeits both the positions, claiming that the prime minister's actions have troubled the party and the country both. Lacking humility, the 'fierce one' fails to understand that his obsession with unseating Oli—and putting himself or his henchmen on the top seat—equally takes the country into a tailspin.
Oli's monologism and Prachanda's dogmatism speak of the same despotic aversion for dialogue and the inability to suspend ego for the larger good. 'Self-sufficiency', the Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire believed, is 'incompatible with dialogue'. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire writes that since dialogue allows people to achieve significance as human beings, it is an 'existential necessity'. But for meaningful dialogue to occur, the participants must engage in critical thinking and commit themselves to the process. The two factions within the ruling party even give the impression that they are in dialogue when they, in fact, have no qualms about demonising each other. What they are doing is just chattering or cross-talking rather than engaging in a meaningful dialogue.
A fundamental flaw in their approach is their unwillingness to get to the core of the problem. A dialogue begun with ulterior motives never hits the nail on its head. While sitting across the table, the two parties must leave their pre-conditions behind. The only conditions that apply are those as explained by the Palestinian-American public intellectual Edward W Said: 'Real principle and real justice have to be implemented before there can be true dialogue'.
Know thy neighbour
The aversion to dialogue, though, is not limited to individuals or intra-party factions alone; it is a universal phenomenon. The geopolitical drama that has been unfolding over the past few months in Nepal's immediate neighbourhood is testimony to the failure of disputing parties to foresee the benefits of a meaningful dialogue. India and Pakistan, in their inability to leave their enmity behind and dialogue with each other for their own sake and for the sake of others in the neighbourhood, made the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) moribund after India abruptly pulled out of the 2016 Summit following terrorist attacks in Uri.
And in the recent months, Nepal and India have been bickering over the disputed territories of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura. Both neighbours have claimed cartographic victories over each other, but they have different moods when it comes to sitting for a dialogue to iron out the differences. Despite Nepal's calls for dialogue, India has been ignoring them. This is because it already has its physical grip over the disputed territory; India finds it beneficial to maintain the status quo.
But India's attitude towards the significance of dialogue in its territorial dispute with China is squarely opposite. China has allegedly crossed into its side of the Line of Actual Control, so it sees no other option than to seek an immediate word with the economically and militarily superior neighbour. Although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his election rallies promised to show laal aankh (that is, take an aggressive stance) against China on the issue of border encroachment, he went as far as saying that there had been no border intrusion even as 20 Indian soldiers had been killed in a fistfight with the Chinese army. Modi ended up showing his ‘red eyes’ only to Pakistan a few times just prior to elections. With Nepal, he has averted his gaze altogether.
As Freire said, dialogue cannot occur between those who deny others the right to speak their word and those whose right to speak has been denied. When it comes to dialoguing with an opponent, no matter whether the opponent is financially and militarily stronger or poorer, what is essential is the moral authority to look into their eyes and talk. It is only by engaging the other in a horizontal relationship, rather than a vertical one, that the mutually beneficial experience of truth-seeking becomes possible. The showing of red eyes sounds good only in rhetoric. What brings about actual change is your ability to engage in a mutually beneficial art of dialoguing with your 'other'.
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