Thursday, February 17, 2011

Why is it so difficult for us to really talk with each other?

The way we talk with each other is, quite frankly, primitive. When we are direct, we are insensitive, and when we are polite, we are not honest. These tendencies are not merely Indian; most people have difficulty being honest and sensitive at the same time. In India, however, the absence of this skill in both private and public life is startling and endemic. We know well how to settle scores, but we have forgotten how to address our differences.

If you want to see how we really treat each other, just step out onto the street. The state of our roads, and our behavior on them, is among the worst of any society on the planet. Pedestrians and cyclists take their lives into their hands every time they set out. Drivers of two-wheelers think nothing of going the wrong way down one-way streets, or even riding on sidewalks. Kamikaze auto-rickshaw drivers often seem to be on suicide missions. And with seemingly no interest in maintaining any street discipline, automobile and truck drivers are wholly unfazed by the presence of traffic lights. Our streets are not merely death traps; they are symbols of our society’s lack of consideration and discipline.

At the civic level, discourse and communication mimics the situation on our streets, leaving much to be desired. Over the past five years, we at Meta-Culture have tried to work with families, neighborhood groups, corporations, and NGOs to assist them with improving communication and resolving disputes. Where we are given the opportunity to intervene, it is heartwarming to witness individuals and groups that have such distrust for each other open up and re-start a dialogue. Most often, though, people refuse to engage with those with whom they disagree.

Our hardest challenge in the Conflict Resolution work we do is, very often, bringing NGOs to the table to talk with their “adversaries.” Their common refrain is that they don’t trust the companies or government. To negotiate, some have told us, would be equal to giving up their autonomy and integrity; as activists, they say, their job is to meet their constituency’s interests through protest. One cannot blame them for their position given that they have never experienced the benefits of effective dialogue or consultative processes.

At a political level the situation is even more depressing, with our parliamentarians having once brought the speaker of the Lok Sabha to tears with their unruly behavior. It is not unusual to read in the paper that our legislators have indulged in fisticuffs and name-calling. Even in the august halls where important matters of state are deliberated, the culture of discourse is coarse; the behavior that our “leaders” model to we the people is more akin to that of street brawlers. Just as our physical health is a result of what we put in our bodies, likewise what people around us “feed” us, and how they and the larger environment treat us, have an impact on the health of our minds. A coarse and rough environment can hardly provide the nourishment necessary for us to treat each other with kindness and consideration.

We see the same circumstance in families. Like most families, mine has its share of problems. I am hard-pressed to remember even a single instance when my family members addressed differences without crying, shouting, name-calling, or silent petulance. When decisions were actually made, they most often emerged out of resignation (“Fine. Do whatever you want. Nothing I can say will change your mind.”); frustration (“You are stubborn and will never understand anything.”); threat (“If you persist, I will not support your education.”); emotional blackmail (“If you don’t do this, you will deeply disappoint me. What did I do to deserve such a son/daughter/parent?”); or sheer vengeance (“Neither my children or I will ever attend another of your weddings or events.”).

Constructive discussion about genuine differences is rare. Perhaps that has something to do with it being wholly unseemly, until a couple of generations ago, for people of lower age, status, or position to question the decisions of their superiors. Wives rarely questioned their husbands, children their parents, students their teachers, or employees their employers. While my own grandfather was a loving and generous man, neither his children nor his wife, my grandmother, had the courage to question or debate with him about anything. His word was law. Likewise, entire generations in India have grown up without the courage or even the skills to question, challenge, or most importantly disagree in ways that are healthy and constructive. When we who are of these generations do in fact muster the courage or claim our right to disagree, that we lack the appropriate skills to do so often makes us wholly disagreeable!

This pattern is as true of organizations and whole societies as it is of individuals. A mature organization or society, like an individual, is one that approaches dissent and contentious issues with patience, thoughtful consideration, authenticity, and wisdom. When will we as a society reach maturity?

From Ashok Panikkar's stimulating article in Newzfirst. More Here.

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