Comment: Dialogue in diverse S’pore not about seeking consensus, but learning to embrace disagreement

Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib writes about the importance of having the courage to embrace uncertainty and engage with opposing views in public discourse, as Singapore moves towards a more deliberative public sphere.

Mothership | August 07, 2022, 01:43 PM

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COMMENTARY: "In formulating a brave space, we do not lay the ground rule of ‘agree to disagree’, which is often a conversation-stopper or a way of retreating into one’s comfort zone by refusing to be challenged. Instead, a brave space embraces controversy, but with civility — where different views are expected and honoured with a group commitment to understand the sources of disagreement and to work cooperatively toward common solutions."

Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib is the founder of the Centre for Interfaith Understanding (CIFU) Singapore, an interfaith non-governmental organisation.

He is an interfaith advocate who not only writes and researches regularly on issues of religion, society, and multiculturalism, but also facilitates workshops to encourage dialogue and understanding among different communities.

In "It's Not Difficult, We Must Be Brave", which was first published in The Birthday Book, Imran writes about the importance of having "brave dialogue" in Singapore, as we move towards a more deliberative public sphere.

He shares that this goes beyond a mere articulation of differing views, but instead involves an engagement with opposing views, without it tipping over into a "I'm right, you're an idiot" toxic form of conversation.  

Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2021 edition of The Birthday Book: Are We There Yet?  

The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 56 authors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on the narratives of their lives, that define them as well as Singapore's collective future.

By Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib

Let’s not kid ourselves. Difficult conversations do not exist.

Conversations are difficult only if we tell ourselves that the objective of the discussion is to make others agree with our view on a matter.

But this is not what a conversation is supposed to be.

What I’ve come to realise in my years as a facilitator is that what matters in a conversation is the willingness to let the conversation transform us.

What makes conversation difficult in today's world

In other words, conversations over contentious issues are not so much about convincing the other but convincing yourself that your own view may not be adequate and your opponent’s view might contain some truth.

In this sense, what is difficult is to listen deeply to what others who disagree with you have to say, and to self-interrogate your own views and position with the possibility of revision.

This dual aspect of listening and self-interrogation is what makes a conversation difficult.

It is about us, not the other.

Over the last decade, Singapore has transformed in a way that signaled a move towards a more deliberative public sphere. Sites of conversations have opened up, be it online or offline.

Some of these were coordinated and offered by government and quasi-government bodies. Others were organically mobilised and pushed for by civil society groups and individuals.

This augurs well for our democratic future.

But there are also signs that public conversations, if not calibrated purposefully, can become toxic.

Defining toxic public conversation

Public relations expert James Hoggan defines a toxic conversation as one where people enter into a public discourse not with the aim of finding a resolution to an issue of public concern but to picket their hardened position and declare, “I’m right, you’re an idiot!”

This toxic form of conversation — if it can be called that — will only stall our ability to think and solve problems collectively as a society.

In a toxic conversation, we often allow extreme positions to define an issue and reduce solutions to a zero-sum game. Often, we take an over-the-top advocacy approach and engage in inept and infantile arguments to be cheered by those who agree with us.

When toxic conversations become prevalent, problems become insoluble and people simply lose interest or lose hope.

Positions harden and gridlock occurs. People stop listening and begin shouting. Conversations become difficult and easily forestalled.

Is Singapore so depressing? I doubt it. But we can clarify and strengthen our approach to dialogue.

Dialogue is not about seeking consensus. It is to learn how to embrace disagreement as part and parcel of being a diverse society.

As philosopher Edward Langerak explains, in a deeply plural society, questions and disagreements are more likely than agreement on answers.

The issue therefore is whether we can share our disagreements in a civil way.

Can we, for example, maintain our own personal integrity while also respecting the rights of others to disagree?

As any dialogue facilitator will tell you, what is crucial here is curiosity (to know the view of the other), an open mind (to reconsider my own view), and a charitable attitude (to not be quick to judge).

The difference between safe spaces and brave spaces

In many conversation circles, I’ve noticed a prevailing pedagogy known as the safe space.

A safe space is often adopted when discussing contentious issues such as racism, LGBTQ+ rights, gender inequality, religious violence, and many more.

In many instances, they are effective. They protect participants from fear of having their experiences denied or being attacked and ridiculed, allowing them to express their real thoughts.

Safe spaces encourage authentic expressions of feelings and thoughts, and can end in trust, understanding and empathy.

But this is not sufficient.

Firstly, a safe space usually ends up reinforcing the dominant culture of avoidance of conflict. While avoiding a conflict situation in itself may not be bad, any move towards change will necessarily involve some form of tension and hence a conflict between the status quo and the intended change. If we fear conflict in itself, we may miss out on the potential for change that can be better than our current state.

Secondly, it often sidesteps power dynamics within a space; it treats all experiences as the same and ignores the issue of privilege.

Thirdly, it often conflates safety with comfort, as noted by educationists, Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens.

Conversations on contentious topics are naturally uncomfortable. Engaging in such topics is less about creating conditions where we feel protected, and more about challenging ourselves by allowing opposing views to enter our space and be ready to transform or be transformed.

It is about courage.

Courage sets a safe space apart from a brave space.

In a brave space, we embrace risk — our deeply held convictions may be wrong and we might have to change our perspectives.

While a safe space reinforces certainty by validating one’s personal experience, a brave space generates uncertainty through self-interrogation.

In that uncertainty, we allow ourselves to be transformed, just as others do the same. We can grow from the conversation and move towards convergence.

The end result is not necessarily a common position but recognising that we do have a common concern.

How we can have mature public conversation

An important aspect in the development of a mature democracy is the existence of an engaged citizenry over issues of concern. It calls for a collective effort in thinking together about what ought and can be done for the progress and development of society.

A mature democracy should also reflect the multiple aspirations of the different segments of the community, yet share those concerns within a common space.

For a robust public discourse, we need interlocutors who are willing to critically examine their own views while articulating their position on an issue.

They must enter a brave space where they are challenged as part of the learning process.

As Robert Boostrom highlighted, "learning necessarily involves not merely risk, but the pain of giving up a former condition in favour of a new way of seeing things.”

The pain of abandoning one’s view can be mitigated by the joy of discovering a new perspective — if only one has the courage and curiosity towards the unfamiliar and the unthought.

In formulating a brave space, we do not lay the ground rule of "agree to disagree", which is often a conversation-stopper or a way of retreating into one’s comfort zone by refusing to be challenged.

Instead, a brave space embraces controversy, but with civility — where different views are expected and honoured with a group commitment to understand the sources of disagreement and to work cooperatively toward common solutions.

A case for brave dialogue

It is important to note here that controversy is a reason to have a brave dialogue. Without controversy, brave dialogues are unnecessary and if they do occur, might only be mere exchanges of pleasantries and charades.

But in a true brave dialogue, we should not expect mere articulation of differing views; instead, one must expect engagement with opposing views.

Challenges to a view, done with civility, are not necessarily attacks; they could be counter-perspectives or simply disagreements. They may be uncomfortable and can often lead to a defensive reaction.

By emphasising the non-attacking nature of a challenge to a view, the attention can then be turned towards the roots of the defensive response — which could either be personal insecurity over an unexamined view that has become a part of one’s identity, or a sense of threat to the privileges attached to one’s group membership or identification.

Antagonisms will always exist in a deeply plural society like Singapore. Hence, we need outlets to channel those antagonisms into a positive search for solutions, without being beholden to finding a consensus.

As a democratic country, we find a provisional agreement to settle political disagreements through the ballot box; but between individuals we recognise the common concerns we have for the progress of our nation.

Resilience is when we can respect those we disagree with while accepting the “democratic provisionality” of whatever decisions are made at a particular moment.

This is the idea of an active and committed citizenship that is vital for a democracy like Singapore.

We need to make room for competing conceptions of our identities as citizens.

Dialogue is the bridge that can ensure differences over public issues do not turn into toxic conversations that end in polarisation.

Policymakers should expand the space for civil conversations and build up the capabilities within content experts, cultural workers, and public intellectuals to carry conversations in ways that strengthen our pluralism through greater inclusion, empathy and commitment to the progress of the nation.

The question is, do we dare enter this brave space and transform ourselves, together?

Top image via Unsplash