Understanding through dialogue, not debate

Director of Griffith University's Multi-Faith Centre, Brian J Adams
Director of the Griffith University's Multi-Faith Centre, Brian J Adams

by Brian J. Adams, Director of Griffith University’s Multi-Faith Centre

Many years ago, I led a group of undergraduate students on a field studies program to Tanzania. For an entire semester we lived in a village on the south end of Zanzibar Island where the students worked on internships and research projects for University credit back home. My job was to set them up with appropriate internships, translate their interviews and generally keep a close eye on them so they stayed out of trouble–a sort of well-connected, linguistically-useful babysitter.

The quest for understanding

The goal of this program was to help students gain a deep understanding of village life in a developing country and, thereby, change their own perspectives about the world in which they live. While understanding was certainly gained by all students, the amount of change in perspective varied greatly. Upon returning home, some students switched their major, or altered their career track in response to what they experienced, while others returned with reinforced stereotypes about poor, uneducated, underdeveloped Africans and an unshakeable desire to never again set foot on the Dark Continent.

How could a group of students who lived in the same place, interacted with the same people, and ate the same foods come away with such completely different interpretations of their experience? The fact is, in shooting for the goal of understanding, the program did not aim high enough. To create connections across national, cultural, or religious difference, respect for these differences should be the goal. Thus, the objective of the work here at the Multi-Faith Centre is to build respect through understanding. Understanding is seen as a contributor to the development of the respect that is the glue of social cohesion and a foundation on which healthy, productive relationships can be built.

The power of dialogue

The primary tool of the MFC for the development of respect and understanding is dialogue, not debate. Debate is an exchange of information in which a position is taken and vigorously defended. Debate is an attempt to bolster a position by showing the weakness of an opponent’s position relative to one’s own. While debate has its place in the public sphere, very little respect is generated and few relationships built in that process.

Dialogue, on the other hand, is not an aggressive exchange of information, beliefs or opinions; it includes listening and openness to transformation of prejudice and perspective. Dialogue is a skill that can be developed and a process facilitated by the environment in which the exchange takes place. Therefore, at the MFC we interpret dialogue as any intentional event or activity in which participants seek understanding and are open to respectful engagement. For example, we are holding a “Many Faiths, One Peace” film competition for Uni and high school students. We sponsor a series of Community Café dialogues designed, inter alia, to build relationships between the police and faith communities and explore the role religion plays in the current conflicts in Sri Lanka. We host various lectures like the “Who’s My God?” series, and we partner with academic units for symposia, such as the International Religion Journalism Symposium in October and the Law and Religion Symposium in November.

Because the work of the MFC is to strengthen community on campus, across Brisbane and throughout the region, our focus cannot be on developing understanding; we have to aim higher. Respect is that goal.