Public Dialogue: Principles of Organization

As practice shows, the most difficult thing is to agree on a dialogue, to agree on the organization issues and what it should be like. This is confirmed by the last few years of futile efforts that are being undertaken by various actors in Belarus, who see dialogue as the way of the country’s development. And this is despite the fact that the value of dialogue as a form of problem solving, organizing joint activities and cooperating is recognized or at least declared by everyone. This is understandable as far as it is dialogue that everyone expects from that his or her opinion and position will be perceived as valuable, that it will be respected, etc. And with this very positive attitude, very few people think about what the essence of dialogue is: what are its necessary components, its outcome, etc. Without this knowledge and this understanding, it is impossible to meaningfully and reasonably move towards dialogue and conduct it. Without this knowledge and this understanding, every time we “fall for” various insignificant features – etiquette, entourage and external manifestations. Despite the fact that the very word “dialogue” has become firmly established in the lexicon of a modern man, it is rarely used in a categorical, categorial sense. Usually, the dialogue is attributed to an undoubted positive connotation (dialogue is good, this is correct, it is the civilized behaviour) and a certain set of norms of etiquette that outwardly fix the behaviour of people during the dialogue. These etiquette norms include: the sequence of speaking (do not interrupt, speak by turn), the right of everyone to express their position and their opinion, the setup towards respect of interlocutors, the requirement for positions’ argumentation, as well as the minimization of personal emotional assessments and attitudes. These norms and attitudes, having been formed through the years of practice of conducting a dialogue, have become entrenched in the form of etiquette, but they often lose touch with the rational foundations which they have been grounded on. They continue to exist and regulate communication in an emasculated form and often become a means of manipulating and simulating dialogue. Thus, the above-described practices of the Belarusian authorities often use “chattering up” the essence of the issue, when, in accordance with the dialogue etiquette, each participant, regardless of their competence and their statements’ content, he or she is given a word with the condition “not to interrupt” and “let finish”. Thus, politeness begins to replace the principled encounter of different positions.

Striving for a dialogue and trying to conduct it, we are doing anything in the overwhelming majority of cases, but not building and not conducting dialogue. We communicate, argue, reason with each other, even speak in chorus, accept general statements – but we do not conduct dialogue. And this is all just because we do not think about what the dialogue is. For the same reason, we do not recognize dialogue when it effectually happens, being distracted by various external effects. In order not just to talk and dream about the dialogue, especially socio-political dialogue, one should disassemble it not as a norm of behavior, but as a scheme for organizing actions. What do we need to know about dialogue in order to organize and conduct it?


The principles of the dialogue organization


Firstly, dialogue requires at least two subjects, two sides. The dialogue can be held between two people, it can also be arranged in mass communication, when dialogue is held not between people, but between social subjects, parties, states, institutions. The more serious the topic and content of the communication is, the more important is to have only two sides of the dialogue. Two positions can be reconciled; a compromise can be found between them. The more positions there are, the more room for manipulation can be found. Dictators and all sorts of “psychological” manipulators always resort to this. Divide and rule. If you break the position of a communication partner into several different positions, then it takes you no time to impose your own opinion as the only one. That is why the most developed and stable democracies exist in countries where political system is bipartisan.

Secondly, social and political dialogue is conducted by social and political actors, each of which is characterized by at least two things. Each of them has the “mental complex”: ideas, beliefs, attitudes, world vision, concepts and theories – everything that makes up the content of his or her position on a particular issue, a “thesis” in the dialogue. In addition, each of the subjects has its own practice, activity inside which this position is defended and with the help of which the thesis is given weight and support.

A lot of people are interested in social and political dialogue, while each of them has their own opinion, different from others, their own personal position. But dialogue, as we have just explored, is communication of two positions. If in social or political communication everyone expresses their personal opinion and their position, well, then the Hyde Park may be arranged, but no dialogue will happen, and no solution to any problem will be found. What to do in case when there are many different problems? This means that many dialogues are needed. Each problem demands its own dialogue. If there is only one problem – and many opinions, who should speak? In such cases, we need to delegate the right to speak to one person.

If the goal is only to speak out, and not to solve the problem, everyone can speak, for as long and as much as they want. This is what happens in Belarus nowadays. And then everyone’s voice is drowned in the white noise of millions of other voices. There is nothing better for a dictatorship than such kind of “democracy”. If the goal is to solve the problem, then two and only two should speak in the dialogue. Two subjects. The first one – with a thesis, the other one – with an antithesis. Today the country has one speaking side – the power, the president’s regime and his vertical. And with whom can this side conduct dialogue? There is no other side. Instead, there is a huge variety of personal opinions and positions. And this is no longer a dialogue, but free – for – all. This is no longer politics, but manipulation of masses.

So, thirdly, social and political dialogue presupposes representation. ONE should speak on behalf of many. But they must delegate such a right to him or her. They have to trust him or her. And the solution of important problems can’t be entrusted to anyone. How to choose a person who can be entrusted with such a representation? There are many ways for this. For example, professionalism. This is an important principle in choosing the one able to speak out on behalf of others. This principle applies to advocateship. Today everyone already understands well enough that in court it is much better to conduct dialogue not by yourself, but through a lawyer. While interrupting a lawyer won’t look very clever in order to insert your personal opinion. You should trust professionals.

And the same thing applies to politics, to public dialogue. There are also professionals: those who not only speak better, but are able to represent a position, conduct the dialogue from a position. Conducting dialogue from a position is much more difficult than simply voicing a certain common opinion or statement. Conducting dialogue is both working with an antithesis, and developing, correcting one’s own thesis. And all of this must be backed up by trust. You need to entrust someone the right to speak with the other side on behalf of many. If this does not happen, then ochlocracy or its kind – tyranny, will be unfolded. Lack of representation and trust is the main obstacle today to the start of social and political dialogue in Belarus.

Fourthly, only communication between equal subjects can be called dialogue. Equality is expressed in the fact that two positions, two subjects cannot ignore each other. They must recognize each other as parties to the dialogue. The subjects must be equal or equalized. People are not initially equal, but they become equal in law, in etiquette, in the rules of a game. Thus, a person – a citizen, a voter, a taxpayer – can enter into a dialogue with the state, for example, in court. One person and a huge state machine – how can they be equal? They can, if they are equalized by legal rules, law and judicial procedures. The law guarantees the equality of every citizen to every other citizen. I.e. equalizes them – rich and poor, vested with power and marginalized, smart and stupid people, anyone – in the face of law.

Law guarantees the equality of a citizen and social subjects and institutions. But this no longer applies to every citizen and every institution. In this case, equalization is specifically stipulated by all sorts of conditions, and these conditions are prescribed in special laws, as well as in agreements and contracts between a citizen and a social structure, or institution. It is on the basis of contracts that an employee can enter into relationship with an employer – whether with a collective farm or a transnational corporation, without fearing for his/her own rights.

But what to do in cases where legal rules or law does not guarantee equality of the parties in communication? Then, the problem of equalization is solved by a weak side (the one that needs to achieve recognition of equality) on its own. All methods of equalization outside of legal relations are reduced to either forceful or conventional. But without fixing equality and recognition of each other, any conversation obliges its participants to nothing.

Powerful methods are all means of the weak side to make the strong one reckon with itself. Terrorism should be referred to as a criminal method of force. But there are a lot of perfectly acceptable ways. For example, strike in trade union activities. When an employer is unwilling to enter in dialogue or negotiation, trade unions go on a strike. When authorities do not want to enter into a dialogue with a certain political subject, the latter resorts to actions of non-violent resistance, huge variety of which is known even by the Belarusian opposition. Sometimes forceful methods turn to be effective enough for the weak side to force the strong one to sit down at the negotiating table. But this happens very rarely.

Conventional methods are much more effective. The variety of conventional methods can be reduced to the acceptance by the parties of certain obligations within the agreed rules of the dialogue. I.e. no dialogue can be started with discussing the content; it starts with discussing the procedure. And only after adoption of the procedure by both parties can we begin to discuss the content on an equal footing. It is good if there is mutual trust between the contracting parties. This happens sometimes, but rarely. Mutual distrust is more common, the weak side fears the use of force, the strong side suspects the weak one in entering a hidden agenda. Therefore, sooner or later, the interested parties involve in their dialogue a third – external – party, which both can be appealed to in case of violation of the reached convention. Thus, trade unions invented the tripartist scheme in their negotiations with representatives of hirers and employers long ago. The state acts as a third party there. The tripartist scheme also works in litigation dialogues between litigants or between the defense counsel and the prosecutor, where the judge or jury is a third party. There exists also just an arbitration court. And nothing better than a tripartist scheme of judgment has not yet been invented. In the current Belarusian situation, we are dealing with civil confrontation of positions, or a conflict. In civil conflicts, international structures are involved as a third party: either a country or the international community. We often hear that it is the international community that should negotiate with the regime. This cannot – and this should not – happen. Internal affairs of the country should be resolved between the national parties to a conflict. And they can be resolved only when the parties move on to a dialogue – sit down at the negotiating table, where the two equalized parties deal with each other, and a third party is not interested in the specific outcome of the negotiations, but is only interested in maintaining the conventional rules. In this case, it should be interested only in the establishment of the civil society norms in the country, norms of communication and dialogue in the conduct of common affairs.

These four principles represent the minimal and simplest scheme of the dialogue – the organizational-activity scheme, i.e. the one, following which it is necessary to organize activities in order to equip the space of dialogue and ensure the opportunity of its start. So, dialogue requires at least (but not more than) two subjects having different theses on the same issue and providing these theses with active, practical forces. There is need for clear representation from each of the subjects, invested with trust and the right to speak and decide “on behalf of”, as well as for agreed and accepted procedures for equalizing, or legitimizing the two positions and outcomes of agreements. But all these are just necessary formal conditions. These are able to provide the very dialogue opportunity. The realization of this opportunity largely depends on the participants and their ability and competence in holding communication and dialogue.

Uladzimir Matskevich

From the book “Public dialog in Belarus: from grass-roots democracy to civic participation”