Humanity, Dialogue, Leadership

I still believe in man in spite of man.  I believe in language even though it has been wounded, deformed, and perverted by the enemies of mankind.  And I continue to cling to words because it is up to us to transform them into instruments of comprehension rather than contempt.  It is up to us to choose whether we wish to use them to curse or to heal, to wound or to console.”

~Elie Wiesel in Open Heart

What is the most obvious sign of our humanity?  Looks can be deceiving, and in this age of robots, transhumanism, and artificial intelligence, I’ll risk the indignant howls of dissent from the technocratic utopians, and propose that it is dialogue, the civilised exchange of views about meaning and purpose, good and evil, and cause and effect, in relation to ourselves, others, and the world around us.

Dialogue is built on rational thinking, free will, and language, the three great advantages of being human.  All other animals have some degree or other of perceptual intelligence, which includes memory and imagination, while humans, in addition to this, enjoy conceptual intelligence or intellect, the power of abstract thinking. Free will is a natural concomitant of the rational mind, and language is the necessary means of expression for an animal with intellect.  According to Karl Popper, language has four functions:

  • Expression, the outward manifestation of an inner state e.g. ouch, wow, oops, and darn it.
  • Signalling, trying to promote a reaction from others e.g. a monkey signalling danger, or a simple greeting like “hello”, or a smile.
  • Description, articulating a proposition, like “That man has a gun,” a warning that has conceptual content that animal sounds do not. A monkey’s squeals arouse fear and instinctive flight, but do not carry the propositional content of concepts like ‘threat’ or ‘leopard’.
  • Argument, articulating an inference from one or more propositions to another in a syllogism that is either valid or invalid.

Animals have the first two functions, but not the last two.

So dialogue is the everyday manifestation of rational thinking, free will, and language, the very things that mark us as human.  And this naturally has profound implications for leadership.  Since human flourishing is the goal of leadership, as opposed to the self-seeking aims of misleadership, unleashing these unique advantages becomes the essential means of achieving that goal.  Effectively, that makes dialogue the indispensable tool of leadership.

The 20th century was the bloodiest in history, and the fact that it was a period in which dialogue was devalued, debased, and dismissed, goes a long way to explaining the savage excesses.  This year marks the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, a cataclysmic event driven by men for whom dialogue was no more than a channel of deceit.  They were bent only on establishing what Yemelyan Yaroslavsky called Lenin’s “regime of the bayonet and the sabre”.

How remote their attitude was from that of a person like G K Chesterton, who could say with conviction, “For if you do not understand a man you cannot crush him. And if you do understand him, very probably you will not.”

In short, dialogue drives leadership.  When dialogue is replaced by raw power, leadership is replaced by anarchy or tyranny.  Sadly, this is as true in the home, the community, and business, as it is in government and international affairs.

But what, precisely, is dialogue?  Synonyms include debate, discussion, argument, deliberation, conversation, conference, and consultation.  Predictably, political correctness and corporate-speak, seek to manipulate meanings to serve particular agendas, and the etymology of words like ‘debate’ and ‘discussion’ are used to discredit them in favour of words like ‘dialogue’ and ‘conversation’.  So the etymology of ‘conversation’ (to turn together) is contrasted with the etymology of ‘debate’ (to beat down), with the obvious implication that debate incites violence while conversation encourages consensus.

This is a brazen manipulation of language for either commercial or political purposes.  ‘Debate’ remains a very valuable word to convey the concept of ‘a formal exchange of ideas on a particular subject in a public forum, in which opposing arguments are presented and submitted to a vote’.  And while the adversarial connotation is plain, opposing ideas are by definition antagonistic, and in any event, it is common enough to have both acrimonious debates and civil debates, or heated conversations and friendly conversations.  So the semantic machinations of the manipulators are to be resisted if we want our language to remain flexible yet firm in giving accurate expression to our thinking.

That said, ‘dialogue’ has emerged as a most useful word for what is so lacking in our angry world.  It has largely retained its etymological roots of ‘reasoning through, or bringing two or more minds together’, and it seems to carry no connotation of the rage and rancour that characterise verbal exchanges today.  Yet we should be wary of stripping ‘dialogue’ of the very human passions at its source as if striving to emulate Mr. Spock.

Dialogue is desirable but dangerous.  Each side in a dialogue will naturally want to convince the others of the superiority of their ideas, but each obviously runs the risk of being shown that the opposite is true.  The age-old pretence that human beings can somehow disconnect their emotions in situations like this when things that they feel passionately about are threatened, is simply untenable.

Emotions are an integral reality of what it means to be human, and are therefore a natural part of human interaction.  It is simply impossible to enter into a rational dialogue unless all sides are prepared to engage imaginatively and empathetically with the point of view of the other person.  Moreover, it is the very willingness to expose one’s views in the precarious and unpredictable arena of dialogue that helps to make the process educational, promoting the knowledge and virtue essential to personal development.

Ironically, people today are, on the one hand, encouraged by schools, psychologists, and the media, to follow their feelings, and on the other, to regard emotive arguments as flawed or as mere propaganda.  And so, dialogue today is corrupted in two different ways.  Firstly, people unable to control and channel their emotions become incapable of dialectic, i.e. abstract reasoning on the basis of terms and propositions, as well as rhetoric, the motivational arguments that deal with concrete, real-life situations as opposed to abstractions.

Secondly, the academic insistence on the exclusive use of the formal logic of dialectic ignores the vital role of rhetoric in communication.  Rhetoric recognises that people are only properly understood in the context of their history, both as individuals and as members of a community.  It takes more than pure logic to move them; they need to be addressed in line with the cultural realities that make them what they are.  Both dialectic and rhetoric are indispensable to fruitful dialogue.

The purpose of dialectic is to follow the correct process of inference in carrying an argument forward, while rhetoric seeks deep empathy in order to persuade.  Dialectic uses the inductive method and syllogisms, while rhetoric depends on real-life examples, current or historical, and the enthymeme, i.e. a syllogism in which one of the propositions is omitted e.g. “That is too good to be true”, in which there is a premise (That is too good) and a conclusion (That cannot be true).  The proposition omitted is the premise that “Whatever is too good cannot be true”.

Real-life examples are persuasive because they are part of shared experience and common knowledge.  Enthymemes are influential because they assume that the audience already knows what is omitted, that it goes without saying.

So why is dialogue today reduced to deceitful and derogatory shouting bouts?  People have been conditioned to approach an exchange of views as a zero-sum game in which any concession amounts to a loss.  They are oblivious to the reality that ultimately the only criterion for success in any contest of ideas is truth.  The degree to which the minds of all involved are brought closer to the truth is the only real indicator of success.  If rational dialogue demonstrates that my view is mistaken, I have not been beaten; I have been given an opportunity for personal growth.

The conditioning has come from state schooling and the suffocating influence of the media.  What has been lost in the sacrifice of education to ideology and skills training is the ability of people to follow an argument, to comprehend different points of view, to approach challenges with flexibility and creativity, and to think for themselves and engage in fruitful dialogue about not just the appropriate means of addressing an issue, but more especially the proper ends.

Of course, inadequate knowledge is an obvious obstacle to rational dialogue.  When people who have never studied history, literature, or philosophy read a revisionist Internet article that flatters their prejudices, they are naturally inclined to take it as unimpeachable fact.  This common occurrence incites all the expletive-laden rants found on conversation threads in social media.



Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas.

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