We had a number of undergraduate students from the United States as part of the Peace Scholar
program. Sixteen students, a pair each from eight universities, were given scholarships for peace & conflict studies programs here at Nansen and later at the University of Oslo's international summer school (where others from our group went on to study peace research
). Since the two Hawaiian participants asked to be engaged with as a separate cultural group, the fourteen remaining students formed a circle with the rest of us to share their answers to questions involving immigration, race and, of course, Donald Trump.
Given the group's larger size, it took time for all the Americans to give a bit of input. Some were more eager to share than others, and the quieter ones were encouraged to speak up if they had something to contribute. There was one young man who was more silent than the rest, and when prompted to speak he took a number of pauses before, as diplomatically as possible, suggesting that certain narratives that we have about Trump voters might not be entirely accurate.
The temperature in the room changed dramatically.
As compared to the Ukrainian process, all of us had a stake involved here. This wasn't a spat limited to a few politicians bickering half a world away: what was on the line here was the liberal project itself. What had once been considered the 'end of history
,' an inevitable victory of globalized, progressive politics, had recently been upended, leaving many of us unsure (or even afraid) of what would happen next.
Depending on your point of view, the responses most of the participants gave to the young man were expressions of passion or hostility, of personal empowerment or bullying, and the reality is that it was all of those things at once. It was a genuine response to someone who suggested a narrative that was incompatible with the dominant one in the room, and many felt that, if it was entertained, it would prove to be an existential threat. Dialogue, one could argue, could be genuinely put aside in favour of defending what we feel was right. But what about migrants?
Don't you know what happens to black people in Trump's America?
How could you even think something like that?
It was only after this last question that Steinar intervened. This was the opposite of what he called the 'right' kind of question
, ones that open space for genuine curiousity, connection and mutual understanding. The questions we were asking were laced through with our own narratives, eliminating the opportunity to give an answer that might shift the way we approach the question. It closed rather than opened doors.
And so we returned to the paradox mentioned above: engaging in dialogue requires us to step back from our 'right' answers and be open to other stories, to a common truth that might be broader than we realize. But this can still feel like ignoring what's moral in the world, or like abetting exploitation and abuse. It's obvious that challenging our narratives is necessary if we want dialogue to happen – the main question, though, is whether or not dialogue's the thing we need most right now
. For many in the room, dialogue was less important than defending what they felt or believed to be true and just.
This is where a profound tension comes in. We can say that, yes, choosing against having dialogue can help us protect the things that urgently need protecting (an idea, a truth, marginalized groups, our own mental health). But then we'll never know if there are legitimate needs on the other side, or if there are narratives clouding our field of vision. And, if we really do have significant blind spots, we risk bulldozing over other people in the name of protecting groups, needs, truths or worldviews that are important to us. It's a dilemma we can't always get around.
Other things that made that moment complicated: our relative newness to dialogue and how it works. Or Steinar, being a white man, encouraging women of colour to engage with people who approach issues of race differently. Or the presence (and lived experience) of members of the trans and black communities. The presence (and lived experience) of people who felt alienated by coastal millenials. The question of whether domestic or foreign policy is more important when it comes to electing a country's leader. How to evaluate the best worst choice. Also: two of the Peace Scholar donors were present. Not to mention a room of peers, watching. Very active facilitation is necessary to help people be vulnerable and sincere in this kind of situation.
If there's one thing we can take away from this, it's the reality that people caught in the thick of these questions don't have it easy. We're the ones in the middle of it now, but later on we might be the facilitators looking at things from the side. Knowing how it feels to be deeply, deeply confronted can help us have empathy for (and mercy on) people who can't engage with things detachedly. We're stuck at an intersection with a very human helplessness.
But again, we're not here to find (or push people into) an easy answer. Not every question is resolved after a couple hours of heated discussion. Certain people hug certain other people in the end. Some leave with different questions, others leave more deeply convicted of their own answers. More than a few need space to collect themselves.
If you're in dialogue for the long haul, you have to be ready to sit in the fire. You have to be ready for others to accuse you of giving malicious actors a voice, of downplaying the truth, of legitimizing dangerous points of view. You have to be ready to ask people to set aside the feeling of danger, panic or anxiety they might have, of creating a space where that's a realistic ask. Because without helping people enter into that kind of space, without giving them support in a process that's, really, quite threatening, you're being an irresponsible facilitator. When you work with people on this level, you're working with a profound kind of vulnerability.
But that's part of the job.