The criteria of enabling dialogical spaces

At the heart of my personal practice of being and becoming in the world is my study of dialogue.

My working definition of dialogue is that it is a transformative process of communication that is most likely to emerge from an enabling dialogical space; that creates a dynamic equilibrium between both group & individual, and conformity & creativity; and that results in the conditions of re-humanization of the other and the self, suspension of judgment, a search for shared meaning and connecting to a larger context. I further hold that, while not necessary for dialogue to emerge, that dialogue is best when it is also characterized by an explicit intentionality toward the enabling dialogical space, crossing thresholds to hear what is difficult or dangerous to hear and a radical inclusivity that always seeks to reciprocity with additional voices and stories.

While I definitely feel that dialogue is a natural mode of communication for humans, and can arise spontaneously, I do feel that the importance of a time and place (linking to Aristotle’s Rhetoric discussion of Kairos, an appropriate time and place), intentionality (meaning mostly the willingness), and good faith – these four to me form the criteria from which dialogue emerges. The more these four are present, the more likely dialogue will emerge. Once dialogue has emerged, the qualities of suspension, re-humanizing, connecting to something larger, and search for shared meaning should be observed.

Unfortunately, I believe that the crossing of thresholds, the radical inclusivity, is not required for dialogue to emerge and therefore is often missed. Without radical inclusivity dialogue will be a tool which creates hierarchy, difference and will disconnect people instead of connect them.

Incomplete meaning can be made from limited experiences. Partial wholes can be connected. Participants can connect with each other and still deny the humanity of the Other. Suspension can occur without transformation.

Dialogue is an emergent process. Dialogue emerges within an enabling environment that requires time and space. Participants must be willing, but can learn to be able. Dialogue includes the idea of suspension, or making space for alternate opinions and views by suspending judgment about others. The process of dialogue is one where the participants slowly are able to remove their personae and get to the core of what they believe and feel about various issues that may be different than those of other participants. One of the primary components of Dialogue is a search for shared meaning. The removal of personae and the search for shared meaning are a revealing of the essential interconnectedness and shared humanity of the participants.

I believe that dialogue is a natural mode of communication that has perhaps its most essential expression when one person asks another for a “real” conversation. Imagine, if you will, two people going about their everyday activities, when one notices the other to be troubled, perhaps because of the way the other is speaking or reacting:

A: “You seem troubled. Let us stop what we are doing, sit down and you can tell me what is really going on.”

I admit that this dialog is a contrived example, but it is fully based on my own experience in participating in dialogical processes. I would not hesitate to suggest that this experience, perhaps with some elements implicit instead of explicitly constructed, is close to a universal human experience.

In this simple act, there reside some fundamental, essential building blocks of what I call an enabling dialogical space. There is an attempt to remove what follows from the normal, mundane actions that came before, entering into qualitative time & space. There is an implicit statement of safety and honesty that signifies an expression and expectation of good faith by the participants. And, by asking for and engaging in a special action, the people involved are both expressing willingness to participate. These four elements, I believe, are the essential foundation of transformative processes: qualitative time & space, good faith and willingness.

This line of dialog also contains all of the conditions I have suggested are present in an emergent dialogue. By framing the conversation as between two real and present people, “you can tell me,” the initiator has started to affirm the essential humanity of the participants, and engaged in a process to re-humanize the other and the self. By asking the other for what is “really going on” the initiator has suggested they will suspend their own notions to make space for the other. By initiating this special mode of communication, the participants are engaged on a search for shared understanding, of shared meaning. By framing this as an opportunity to collectively determine what is “really going on” as distinct from and discerned through the ordinary, these participants are attempting to frame their existence as part of a whole that is greater than themselves and connected to a more universal context than the one to which they are ordinarily connected.

Further, in this simple act, there is a kind of ritual action, a marker that consecrates the actions that follow. One person evokes this space through a ritualized action that grounds the participants and signifies that something special, something out of the ordinary, is going to occur. By ritual action, I mean an act meant to consecrate the conversation. In speaking about paganism, Ronald Hutton offers a definition of ritual and an important explanation of consecration:

“For ‘ritual’ I adopt Clifford Geertz’s lovely definition, of ‘consecrated action’; expanded to signify formal, dramatic, and usually stylized action. In many ways the essence of all modern paganism is consecration; the attempt to make persons, and places, and objects feel more sacred, more invested with inner power and meaning which connects the apparent to the non-apparent world.” (Hutton, 2000, p x)

Enacting an enabling dialogical space is in part about marking the time & space in which transformation is to occur and greater meaning is to be found. I suggest that dialogue is a transformative process that takes place within a, perhaps subtly, ritualized and consecrated space.

Moreover, I believe that any transformative process, not just dialogue, built on the foundation of an enabling dialogical space is likely to be efficacious and to result in the emergence of some transformation whether the process enacted in that space is nominally successful or not. An enabling dialogical space is in no small way a theory about creating places where transformation can occur, and this has clear connections to enabling the processes of dialogue and the theatrical experience as I have explored (Bell, 2002), the engagement paradigm (Axelrod, 2002), principled negotiation (Fisher & Ury, 1981), certainly not exhaustively, of communitas in Turner:

“Communitas, or social antistructure [is] a relational quality full of unmediated communication, even communion, between definite and determinate identities, which arises spontaneously in all kinds of groups, situations, and circumstances. It is a liminal phenomenon which combines the qualities of lowliness, sacredness, homogeneity, and comradeship” in contrast to ordinarily prevalent social structures. [Turner 1978:250] (via Webster 1993 “Changing Society through Ritual” pdf)

As outlined by Webster (1993), a key component of ritual, and thus of transformational spaces, is in placing the existing determinant order, or hierarchical relationship between participants, in a subservient relationship with a dominant symbol, whether in Webster’s case that is a divinity being evoked in ritual or the presence of a transformative process such as dialogue, which is the eternal object that exists out of normal time, evoked through, what I have theorized as, an enabling dialogical space.

So, while I whole-heartedly agree with Senge‘s (1994) view that hierarchy is a core dysfunction that hinders the emergence of dialogue, in an enabling dialogical space it is the willingness and good faith of the participants within qualitative time & space that places existing hierarchy in a subservient relationship to the emerging dialogue, or transformative process. To some extent, hierarchy is thus not eliminated but suspended, as in Bohm’s (2000) suspension as a function in dialogue. This suspension reinforces the function of dialogue where participants are not forced to become what they are not, but are led to become more than they are, as in any initiatory process, or rite of passage, or transformational processes in general.

The nature of the Olympia pagan community

The pagan community in Olympia is a community of practice, but is comprised of many religious and spiritual traditions. Within the overall pagan community, there is the community of practitioners of wicca, a neo-pagan earth-based religion. A great historical study of the origins of neo-pagan witchcraft is Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon, (2000) which matching my sense rightly categorizes the wiccan religious traditions as neo-Romantic, post-modern and essentially counter-cultural.

One tradition within the wiccan community is Reclaiming. The Reclaiming tradition came out of a community of witches in San Francisco, primarily as a spiritual path that included the activism that was a part of the lives of the practitioners. One of the most well known members of the early Reclaiming community is the author and activist Starhawk, whose books are quite well known. Starhawk’s Spiral Dance (1989) is considered a classic of neo-pagan literature, and Truth or Dare (1990) has been used as a text at Antioch University Seattle. Jone Salomonsen (2002) undertook an interesting study of the Reclaiming tradition, which demonstrates the origin and connection between Reclaiming and the feminist movement in which many of the practitioners were active. A statement of what the Reclaiming community is can be found in the Reclaiming principles of unity. (See fig 1) That the Reclaiming tradition stresses the link between activism and magic is merely an extension of the overall counter-cultural basis of modern neo-pagan witchcraft.

Structurally, the wiccan community is roughly and generally divided into functional groups: covens, circles, individuals and events. Covens are generally closed and close-knit groups of practitioners that work together over a long period of time. Circles are generally more or less open groups, which allow for a more divergent membership, and may or may not exist for an extended time. Events are organized, usually as rituals or classes, and are usually public and if there is a cost, if possible, no one in refused on account of inability to pay.

Individuals in the community may participate in the various organizational structures at various levels of engagement, including being merely allied to the principles of the community. For example, there are many members of the overall Olympia community that only participate in single events, such as the annual Spiral Dance, or have only attended one of the Reclaiming classes when they’ve been offered, and are not connected with any coven or circles.

There is a striking similarity between the coven structure of witchcraft to the affinity group structure, also called revolutionary cells:

“An affinity group is a group of people who have an affinity for each other, know each others strengths and weaknesses, support each other, and do (or intend to do ) political/campaign work together. Most of us will have had some childhood/formative experience of being part of a group whether informally, as in a group of kids that are the same age and live in the same street, suburb or town, or formally, as in being involved in a sports team. However, affinity groups differ from these for numerous reasons, as explained below, (hierarchy, trust, responsibility to each other etc).
The concept of ‘affinity groups has a long history. They developed as an organising structure during the Spanish Civil war and have been used with amazing success over the last thirty years of feminist, anti-nuclear, environmental and social justice movements around the world. They were first used as a structure for a large scale nonviolent blockade during the 30,000 strong occupation of the Ruhr nuclear power station in Germany in 1969, and then in the United States occupations / blockades of the Seabrook nuclear power station in ’71 when 10,000 were arrested and again many times in the highly successful US anti-nuclear movement during the ’70’s and ’80’s. Their use in sustaining activists through high levels of police repression has been borne out time and again. More recently, they have been used constructively in the mass protest actions in Seattle and Washington.
We don’t have to use the word ‘affinity group’ – blockade teams, action groups, cells, action collectives etc. have all been used to describe the same concept.” (Starhawk, n.d.)

In other words, an individual’s membership in a group is generally not known to outsiders and an outsider knowing one member of a group does not mean knowing the complete membership. Moreover, as opposed to typical organizations, and many communities, it is very possible that there are individual, and even active groups of, practitioners with long histories in the overall community about which I may have no knowledge whatsoever, even within the tradition in which I am active; but, moreover, very likely that I would not know individual, or groups of, practitioners for traditions in which I am not.

… a reclaiming witch

Where the creative arts are the praxis of imagination so is activism the praxis of an idealistic imagination. I believe this is fundamentally related to design thinking design thinking that mediates between what is and what could be, to discern what should be. Design thinking, at least in some sense, is as much the same denial of realism because it is a search for what is more than is.

Therefore, I submit that activism is also praxis of design thinking. And, since activism is an attempt to manifest the desire for what should be through invoking and evoking an imaginal idealism into the real, I submit that design thinking is a form practical magic, the art of changing the world through the use of will, of consciousness. When this practice is wholistic and systemic, I submit that it is a form of witchcraft, deeply rooted in consensus power instead of command. Both Axelrod (2002) and Starhawk (1990) speak to the importance of this distinction, and there is demonstration of the connection between creative change in the world and … creative change in the world through magic

I therefore suggest that witchcraft is a religion of post-modern systemic wholism that complements the scientific, technological post-modernism (p395) of ceremonial magicians.

I discovered I was a witch

When I moved to Olympia, I discovered that I was a witch. There were signs and portents, to be sure. In high school, my wardrobe consisted of variant shapes and forms universally shaded black and o’ershrouded by a de rigueur trench coat, long before there was ever a “trench coat mafia.” I had a penchant for fantasy novels, and an abiding interest in exploring the new age section of every bookshop.

But, there were also contra-indications. I have long been a technophile, tending toward the geeky nexis of computers, science and the presumption of intellectual aristocracy. My interest in fantasy novels was far outweighed by an interest in science fiction. My rejection of Captain Kirk as exemplar in favour of Mr Spock would have suggested the inclination toward scientism and a purgation of emotional thinking, except that the archetype actually is one of deep inner conflict between intellect and emotion, both strong and always close to loss of control.

I think in many ways the theatre was the crucible in which my personal process of integration and wholism was kindled. The strength of my explorations into the imaginal and in manifesting the imaginal in the tangible world offered a way to realize and become a self that was more than myself.

And, an early self-identification with atheism, which evolved, with the acquisition of complexity and pretentiousness, into “agnostic mysticism” …

Reclaiming Principles of Unity
Reclaiming Principles of Unity

However, logic, in the face of the elimination of all reasonable explanations for phenomena requires that the unreasonable be considered. Some things, it seemed to me, were just beyond explanation by the metaphysic of the prevailing paradigm. And, there is in the imagination a call to yell out that reality is not, can not be what it appears. (Houellebecq, 2005, pp 16-17). This “resounding NO” to the mundane is at the same time a resounding YES to the imaginal.

For the most part, with some exceptions, such as a stalwart cynicism, I have managed to nuance this “resounding NO” to life into a resounding NO to life as it is. Instead of devolution into what I’ve euphemistically called a culture of corrosion, exemplified by much of my generation’s smug and satisfied alienation from meaning and life, I have managed to maintain some fraction of optimistic idealism, which in turn I have sought to manifest in the world through my actions.

Witchcraft can be seen, like my history with fantasy and theatre before it, as part of the same heartfelt cry for a “supreme antidote against all forms of realism” (Houellebecq, 2005, p 29) that led me to poietic practices, the pursuits of active creativity, the praxis of imagination.