Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 403 | Febrero 2015



Nicaragua has to engage in dialogue

This short article, originally titled “Venezuela has to engage in dialogue,” was written when that country’s opposition and government first sat down to talk. It could have been written for today’s Nicaragua, where polarization reigns and there’s an urgent need for dialogue and debate.

Hildebrand Breuer Codecido

German philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the term “banal evil” to refer to actions or behaviors that are clearly evil and may even end up becoming perverse but do not originate in human feelings such as envy, fear, hatred, rancor or resentment found in most everyday evil. Arendt attributes the phenomenon rather to an absence of thought among certain people, as she believes thinking necessarily implies a reflexive act in which a person engages in dialogue with him or herself.

That dialogue becomes a constant scrutiny, an examination of our own convictions and most intimate ideas, forcing us to expose them to meticulous judgments that might even undermine our most solid convictions. It is similar to what Socrates did with his daimonion, that spirit-like entity with which he claimed to periodically engage in dialogue.

This obviously has a number of consequences. Firstly, we exercise our own internal voice, which we are free to obey or not, but which will have more to tell us about our actions the more audible it becomes. In addition, this constant conversing with our conscience allows us to put ourselves more easily in other people’s shoes, which tends to stop us from trampling or harassing them, and even more importantly from letting the banality of evil establish its presence.

Unthinking people include nihilists,
dogmatists and many normal citizens

Anyone can lose their “internal judgment”: me, you, those around us, anyone who appears to be normal and whose behavior does not suggest anything exceptional at all. Yet, according to Arendt’s categories, unthinkingness occurs among three sorts of people: nihilists, dogmatists and normal citizens.

Unthinking nihilists conceive of a world with no universal values to adhere to, which leads to everything being seen as relative, including human dignity. Dogmatists differ diametrically from nihilists in that they can’t live without clinging to a reference framework of values, or what they believe to be values, becoming rigidly loyal to some proposed body of thought to achieve security and tranquility. We see unthinkingness as not just a symptom in them, but also a need. They would find reflexive thinking unbearable.

But it is the last set, those normal citizens who never engage in reflection, that is most worrying, as they are the ones who, based on an uncritical process, bestow legitimacy on totalitarian systems and the policies of the nihilists or dogmatists who lead such regimes.

All three cases involve a non-dialoguing conduct with one’s conscience or inner voice, which is present like a foreign being. Because this voice is not engaged in conversation it remains unknown and certainly has no possibility of being obeyed.

The most subversive dialogue
comes from the grass roots

If you want to subvert polarization, engage in dialogue. Once the inner deliberation Arendt talked about has been achieved, the dialogue must move on to the next level where we reengage with others and reaffirm ourselves as part of a society through that reengagement.

Dialogue is not exhausted at the highest levels of power, among representatives of the government and the opposition. What’s more, it doesn’t even have to start there, although that can be a positive sign, as long as it’s not constantly wasted through confrontational discourse. Dialogue requires a conversion of forms and praxis.

A dialogue that emerges from the grass roots, which exceed and surpass their leaders in maturity and ethics, is much more subversive. Subverting a system of exclusion, division, estrangement among brothers, dependence on economic and political powers, and polarization requires a dialogue that is constant and profound, but above all massive, first in small spaces, in neighborhoods, residential areas, universities, communal councils. These spaces then connect up and create new discourses and new dynamics of social construction.

Various ideas have occurred to us about how to conduct this dialogue, which is obviously not an exhaustive list, but rather suggestive, with a view to encouraging further new proposals.

There aren’t just two positions

The objectives of the dialoguing parties must be set out as clearly as possible. If any are kept secret it will of course hinder the rapprochement and the results will be qualitatively less valuable as the more sensitive objectives remain silenced or unnegotiable.

One of the ideas that must be overcome is that there are only two parties in the conflict. Those two most clearly opposing ones are not even homogeneous themselves, and in addition there are various actors who are distinct from them.

What is fair for you may not be fair for me. The same is true for what is good and for how we define happiness. But the problem runs deeper. Have you ever tried to explain to someone what “good” or “justice” is? Try it. When you have a free moment, try to explain those ideas to yourself with arguments, as Arendt would suggest. You’ll see that it isn’t easy. Now imagine millions of people trying to do it and you’ll understand why it’s sometimes so difficult to build a society that agrees on things that appear so evident to you. The only thing we can all agree on is precisely how difficult that is.

A society in which everybody agrees and nobody complains, in which no dissenting voices can be heard, is a society in which many are probably keeping quiet or being kept quiet.

Obstacles to the dialogue,
biases and fallacies

To engage in dialogue you have to overcome obstacles, many of which are between us or within each of us. I’m not going to offer the answers to certain questions I’ve given myself, but I invite you to use my framework of analysis below to ask yourself some, alert to these obstacles identified by cognitive psychology, which studies how we learn. From my perspective they are are stumbling blocks in any deliberative process. Let’s take a look:

The bias of confirmation, through which we tend to favor information that serves as proof for what we believe in or desire, even if it’s not confirmed.

Disagreement bias is the opposite, consisting of criticizing more strongly or energetically, placing in doubt, anything that might refute our beliefs.

The false dilemma fallacy, which assumes that there’s a disjuncture between only two actors that exhausts all the choice options. But there aren’t only two actors, and the two most visible ones aren’t homogeneous. Not all Chávez (read Ortega) followers are the same, for example, nor are all the opponents. False dilemmas also apply to methods, not just actors. It’s therefore also fallacious to think, as some do, that we have a choice of just two paths ahead of us: violence and absolute conformity.

The fallacy of the single cause involves attributing a single and simplistic explanation to complex phenomena. Explaining crime, shortages or corruption with mono-causal arguments is an example we see every day among us.

The straw-man fallacy is one of the most interesting and perhaps most difficult to identify. Straw men are dummies made of straw or other materials and used to practice some kind of physical combat; they are, obviously, easy to defeat. The fallacy of the same name consists of creating a clumsy, poorly-argued position that we present simplistically as that of the opponents and then easily defeat in front of our acolytes, who approve with satisfaction.

Status defense bias is one that emerges when we identify arguments or questions that feel threatening to our position and interests, generating an attitude of defense and denial.

Anecdotal reasoning is a common trait many of us use to bestow a general nature to a phenomenon based on isolated or anecdotal cases that do not demonstrate a priori universality.

The blind spot bias is perhaps the most important one we should all look out for in our own positions, as it is one everybody suffers from to some extent. It simply consists of an inability to see our own biases and prejudices.

Do you engage in a dialogue with yourself about your own positions? Do you think some of these biases or fallacies are present in your analysis of the country? If you feel part of one of the opposing poles in Venezuela (read Nicaragua), which biases or fallacies do you identify on the other side? And which do you identify on your own?

And perhaps the most important question: what do you recommend to overcome them?

Hildebrand Breuer Codecido is a specialist in international security. This text originally appeared in SIC, a magazine of the Jesuits in Venezuela, in April 2014. The version above has been edited and translated by envío.

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