When Dialogue Isn’t Enough

My work as a public historian over the past year has been heavily informed by a number of training sessions I attended about the concept of facilitated dialogue. I’ve also had some opportunities to develop educational programs around the concept, most of which I think have been successful in the sense that people asked questions, listened to each other, and hopefully left the experience wanting to learn more. I think dialogue is an important counterpoint to the debate-heavy culture that dominates popular media on television and the internet. The two communication methods are not the same: debate focuses on convincing others of your point of view, whereas dialogue focuses on establishing an understanding of different perspectives, questioning established biases and assumptions, and expanding our “empathy muscles.” In the main I think the goals of dialogue are laudable. If we can get people talking about important topics in a civil manner, perhaps we can all understand each other a little better and work towards making the world a better place. The public history field as a whole is embracing dialogue and, for better or worse, the word runs the risk of losing its meaning as it quickly enters the dreaded jargon buzzword section of our lexicon.

I have advocated for more dialogic programming at my workplace and continue to sing its praises on this website, but by no means do I believe that dialogue is a flawless method without any shortcomings. Last week’s NCPH 2016 meeting has only fueled more skepticism within me and I feel myself moving towards an intellectual space where “I don’t know” reigns king.

My skepticism about dialogue was heightened in the wake of a webinar with National Park Service officials in Washington, D.C. a few months ago about the NPS’s “response” to last year’s Charleston shooting. That response took form through Director Jon Jarvis’s directive banning all Confederate flag merchandise from NPS giftshops and bookstores that was not being interpreted in a historical context. The webinar hosts are thoughtful people who’ve been working with history parks throughout the country to commemorate the Civil War and Civil Rights Eras through educational programming, but I thought this particular discussion was completely devoid of any meaningful substance. One host preached the importance of “healing,” “reconciliation,” and “dialogue,” while another host argued that the NPS’s response was informed by a strong belief that the agency embodies the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, specifically that “all men are created equal.”

But what does healing and reconciliation mean in this context, and who benefits from the process? Does it mean promoting healing for white people so they don’t feel guilty about their history? Are we saying it’s still okay for people to wave Confederate flags as long as they first engage in dialogue? If someone is offended by the presence of a Confederate flag and another is offended by its removal from public spaces, how do we achieve true reconciliation between the two parties? If I interact with an angry visitor who’s frustrated by the removal of Confederate icons throughout the country, what good is it for me to babble about the Declaration of Independence, especially when we all know that the Confederacy and its apologists today also use the language of the Declaration to promote their political ideals? What’s the point of entering into a dialogue with someone who is completely opposed to meeting halfway with anyone else or changing their views? Are there times when dialogue runs the risk of legitimizing hateful viewpoints as equal and valid with other viewpoints? Are there times when dialogue is inappropriate and forceful arguments that take a stand for or against a particular viewpoint the most necessary path for achieving healing and reconciliation?

After I wrote an essay last week on my takeaways from NCPH 2016, Elizabeth Catte of Middle Tennessee State University wrote her own essay about the conference that in large part revolved around questioning the usefulness of dialogue in public history practice. I consider it one of the strongest critiques of dialogue I’ve ever read. To wit:

I approached this year’s conference – and closed out my tenth year in the field – with a sense of uneasiness about a number of questions, themes, and mandates in our field. Throughout the last year, I’ve often wondered if the principles and concepts we hold dear – community engagement, dialogue, shared authority – hinder rather than help diversity. As a field, are we really comfortable with demanding, for example, that non-white practitioners ‘share authority’ with individuals or institutions that do not value their lives and identities? I’ve often also wondered if an emphasis on ‘dialogue’ further privileges a distinctly white perspective within public history. This question, in our field, is perhaps most striking in the context of debates concerning Confederate monuments, community response, and the ‘appropriate’ role of public historians in these ongoing conversations. I don’t have answers to these questions, but I see them everywhere.

It would be safe to say that Elizabeth’s perspective is shaped by her work on the front lines of MTSU’s ongoing controversy over an ROTC building on campus named after Nathan Bedford Forrest. In a different essay she convincingly argues that the naming of Forrest Hall in 1954 came as a response to Brown v. Board of Education and other racial desegregation efforts in the 1950s, and that the current campaign to remove the name from the building has its roots in criticisms among the student body dating back to the 1960s. In chronicling this history, Catte demonstrates how repeated calls for “dialogue” and “public conversations” have allowed the issue to fester for years without any sort of meaningful plan of action going forward. Last night marked the final meeting of the current “public conversation” about Forrest Hall before a task force committee makes a decision on the name next month. While I’m not there to witness what’s going on firsthand, reading tweets from the meeting this morning has been infuriating.

From my distanced vantage point the Forrest Hall debacle highlights real shortcomings with dialogues and public conversations. Such conversations include white committee members belittling people of color who express criticisms of the Forrest Hall name and Confederate-apologizing white supremacists being given a powerful platform to bully and lecture MTSU students–including those in a history department that has one of the most successful public history programs in the country–to “learn their history.”

This is not the sort of “dialogue” I would ever want to be a part of.

Dialogue is pointless if it doesn’t turn into meaningful action. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a notorious slave trader, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, and an all-around despicable person. Moreover, he has absolutely no ties to the history of Middle Tennessee State University. The time for dialogue has come to an end. The argument in favor of keeping the name is flawed beyond repair. The most recent attempt to have a “public conversation” about Forrest Hall and an “impartial” Task Force to adjudicate the process has been an absolute farce that has unnecessarily prolonged what should have been done a long time ago. It’s time to change the damn name and remove it from the place of honor it was given by university administrators in 1954 who opposed racial desegregation in public education.