The Lindberg Lecture 2008

Transformative Dialogue: Coordinating Confl icting

Moralities by

Sheila McNamee

2007 Recipient of the Lindberg Award for Excellence in Teaching and Scholarship in the

College of Liberal Arts at the University of New Hamsphire



Transformative Dialogue: Coordinating Confl icting

Moralities by

Sheila McNamee




Th e annual Gary Lindberg Award was established by the College of Liberal Arts in 1986 in memory of Professor Gary Lindberg of the Department of English. Professor Lindberg was an exceptional scholar and outstanding teacher whose dedication and service to the University of New Hampshire as well as the wider community exemplifi ed the highest academic standards and ideals.

In memory of Professsor Lindberg and as a means of publicly sup- porting superior faculty accomplishment, the College of Liberal Arts annually recognizes one truly outstanding scholar and teacher within the College. Th e award carries a $5,000 stipend. Th e recipient is in- vited to present the Liberal Arts Lecture to the public during the fol- lowing academic year.



I would like to invite you, the reader, to refl ect on some issues that I believe are crucial for us to consider. We live in a world of diff erences and confl ict. We are globally connected in ways that have not been previously possible, highlighting diff erences and confl icts of signifi cant proportion. Daily people die due to our collective inability to navigate our diff erences. Many of us feel the desire to do things diff erently – to understand, to connect – yet, we are frozen by uncertainty. I would like to off er some rudimentary ideas about what we might do to con- front this state of aff airs. Th e central requirement for us is to move beyond either/or thinking and enter a space where we consider the very processes we engage in constructing the social order. Dialogue, a very specifi c form of communication, off ers us a way to step into and em- brace the diversity of moral stances that we confront in today’s world.

Richard Rorty says, “Intractable moral confl icts are not easily re- solved and, in many cases, may not be resolvable. Indeed, many such confl icts should not be resolved, but they can be argued in more hu- mane, enlightening, and respectful ways, at least ‘continuing the con- versation’” (p. 394). Let me off er a colorful illustration of Rorty’s idea of more humane, enlightening, and respectful ways of engaging our dif- ferences as narrated by Sally Miller Gearhart, a self-proclaimed activist:

Five years ago when I’d see a logging truck loaded with redwoods or old oak, I’d shoot the driver the fi nger. He’d (could it ever be a she?) shoot one right back at me and then go home and put a bumper sticker on his truck that would read, “Hey, Environmental- ist, try wiping your ass with a spotted owl!” Th ree years ago, I was a shade more gentle (sic). I would stop dead in my tracks, glare at the driver . . . and make sure he read my lips: “Fuck you, mister.” Th en

Transformative Dialogue: Coordinating Confl icting





he’d go home and add another bumper sticker to his truck: “Earth First! We’ll log the other planets later.”

Th ese days . . . I’m practicing acknowledging loggers as “fellow travelers on Planet Earth,” as Trudy the bag lady would say, doing what they do just as I do what I do; I’m laying off any attempt to change or even judge them, and I’m trusting that acknowledgment of our kinship can make a positive diff erence in the texture of all our lives.

When I meet an erstwhile “enemy,” instead of moving immediately into horse posture or splitting the scene entirely . . . I look for the joining point, the place where we are the same, where we can meet each other as beings who share the experience of living together on this planet. I introduce that into the conversation, and we talk about the thing that belongs to both of us . . . When I can’t fi nd any common ground upon which to stand with some “enemy,” like a logger, then I ask him to take me into his world for a day or two so I can hear him and his buddies talk about what it means to be out of work . . . with a family to feed.

When all’s said and done . . . I like “joining” better than fi ghting or running away . . . I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned that it is never individual men/people who are my “enemy” but complex systems of exploitation that have emerged from centuries of alienation and per- petuation of violence; it is these systems and that con- sciousness – not the people – that I can, with integrity, hope to change. I’ve learned that my pain, anger and / or hatred accomplish nothing except to render me in- eff ectual and to increase the problem by adding to the pain, anger, and hatred that already burden the world. I’ve learned that whole parts of my identifi ed “enemy” are really my own self, walking around in diff erent cos- tume. And in the moments where we’ve found some joining space, I’ve learned that, though I still may not choose to spend time with him, I do feel a kinship or love for that killer, that exploiter . . . If I can still hold




strong to my standard of what is just and decent and ap- propriate behavior for human beings and yet go about my life with a new awareness, with joy in the process instead of my former debilitating pain, and if I can do all this without creating and maintaining “enemies,” then I have to try it. (Miller Gearhart, 1995, pp. 8-11)

My work is centered on precisely the transition Gearhart describes in her approach toward “the enemy.” It is an approach that can be com- monly misunderstood. To some, Gearhart’s approach might be sum- marized as confl ict avoidant. Others might describe her way of acting as idealistic and thus, no solution to the moral confl ict at hand. To me, Gearhart’s story illustrates neither confl ict avoidance nor idealism. I see it as one illustration of how we might coordinate confl icting moralities.

Th ere are two issues I would like to address here that resonate with Rorty’s idea and Gearhart’s example of “continuing the conversation.” Th ese two issues are framed as questions: What is dialogue? and How can dialogue be useful in moving beyond moral confl ict? In order to explore these questions, it is important to fi rst consider the topic of moral confl ict.

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