Is dialogue dying?

September 27, 2006|By Beverly Bickel

This summer, I traveled with some Latin American educators to the Gal?pagos archipelago, las islas encantadas. In every caf? and souvenir shop in those "enchanted islands," we encountered reminders of Darwin's work on evolution and how we are, as he wrote, "netted together" with "our fellow brethren," the animals.

I was in Guayaquil, Ecuador, to attend a conference focused on the teaching of English and cultural exchanges between Latin American countries and the United States in the hope of improving understanding and dialogue - a word, I was reminded, that comes from the Greek dialogos, meaning "to speak between and across."

While wandering the beaches and highlands of the Gal?pagos after the conference, we were amazed at how unfazed the marine iguanas, sea lions, blue-footed boobies, giant tortoises and even Darwin's tiny finches were by our close proximity. I contemplated how difficult it seems to be for our human species to live in such close proximity and how challenged we are to engage in intraspecies dialogue, let alone manage our connections with "our animal brethren."

Upon my return to Baltimore, I picked up Kurt Vonnegut's 1985 novel Gal?pagos, narrated 1 million years in the future. His story is of the de-evolution of humans, whose "over-sized brains" compelled them in the late 20th century to do whatever could be done: conquering (and destroying) the global environment, conquering (and enslaving) fellow humans, building (and exploding) bombs for spectacular entertainment.

As we have watched the detonation of the most sophisticated weaponry (prized by us big-brained humans) in Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq, I wonder at the irony of it all. Is our big-brained human capacity for dialogue devolving? Is the global communication work I returned to in Baltimore - teaching English and promoting intercultural understanding - dooming us to become a branchless limb of the evolutionary tree?

An Israeli political scientist, Michael Dahan, whom I met at yet another international conference dedicated to intercultural communication, sent out an appeal recently to his colleagues in Israel and around the world in which he quoted two Egyptian artists, the poet Ahmad Fouad Negm and the oud player Sheikh Imam:

Should the sun drown in the sea of clouds And should the world be engulfed in waves of darkness You who search, and care, for meaning Shall find nothing to guide you, but eyes made of words.

Mr. Dahan calls on his colleagues, on all of us, everywhere, to "take heed of these words, to listen and to think, to rise above the pain and sorrow, and to let reason and humanity prevail. ... All we have in the end are words ... to speak out loudly and clearly."

Shouldn't we Americans, in a country founded on the principle of free speech among diverse peoples, demand that our leaders use their big-brained human capacity for dialogue, before, as Mr. Dahan warns, "it is too late and we are all engulfed in the flames"?

Let's hope that Mr. Vonnegut got it all wrong, and that we are not heading back into the sea, where life is simply a streamlined search for food and the weak are gobbled up by the sharks.

Beverly Bickel, director of the English Language Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, teaches a course on globalized communication in the American studies department. Her e-mail is

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