Information is not knowledge. There is such a thing as misinformation, but not mis-knowledge. Knowledge is truth; if what you know is not true, then it is not knowledge. Knowledge is developed in the sustained dialogue, characterised by the constantly recurring question “Why?”, between teacher and learner, the former being any source of wisdom, from parent to mentor, to a book, or life itself, and the latter being each and every one of us, for as long as we have the desire to grow.
The glut of questionable information in the digital age has inevitably promoted widespread cynicism, and language as a means of persuasion and motivation has been reduced to vague and often fatuous sound-bites. People talk in clichés, and Orwell’s warning about stock phrases shaping the way one thinks has become a disturbing reality, related as it is to the onset of the ideological dystopia he foresaw.
The decay of language, that is the loss of its power to give full and accurate expression to our ideas, is a very significant factor in the demise of dialogue. Language shapes human community, the ways in which we try to live together. Our perceptions about reality arise from how it is described by us and others, and perceptions impact politics, business, social forms, and everything else.
The essential purpose of language is to describe reality, things as they are. When people use language to misrepresent reality, to distort or suppress it, they immediately negate the possibility of dialogue, and therefore mutual understanding and mutually beneficial relations. When the words and meanings of the things we talk about are changed to represent the fictitious reality of the manipulators, trust flies out the window, and moral confusion blankets society, much as we see today.
Is it any wonder that so much of the communication that crowds our world goes misunderstood? Moreover, people intoxicated by ego and ideology, and often demoralised by stress, only hear what they want to hear, and the words of Goethe have returned to haunt us: “Nobody would talk much if he knew how often he misunderstands others.” Empathy is in steep decline, and people’s opinions tend to be little more than half-baked beliefs that stem from random perceptions and thoughtless assumptions.
A leadership response to the world’s woes can only start with dialogue, that is, honestly reasoning through the issues, bringing the minds of all concerned together in understanding. Dialogue understood in this way necessarily involves certain conditions:
- Respect for the dignity of all people
- Humility regarding one’s own limitations
- Open minds with truth as the prime goal
- A commitment to listen, understand, and empathise
- Skills in both dialectic and rhetoric
- The ability to define and defend one’s worldview, the framework that shapes all thinking. An inability to do so indicates that one’s reasoning is merely procedural and therefore suspect, instead of being substantive and rigorous.
Like leadership itself, dialogue has as its purpose human flourishing. If it does not, it is no longer dialogue, but deception.
This makes the implications for education obvious, and if state schools and tertiary institutions were sincerely committed to the kind of learning that promotes human flourishing, they would restructure their content and methods accordingly. But they do not want dialogue; they want docility. That is why the democratic impulse is dying, why culture is in crisis, and why frustration and rage are bubbling beneath the wafer-thin surface of our civilisation. The implications for politics, the media, the world of business, and relationships in general, are also obvious.
The demise of dialogue and the global leadership crisis are intimately related to the onset of the dehumanising forces tearing down the cultural advantages we have taken for granted for so long. The historian Paul Johnson summed up our situation eloquently:
“The essence of civilisation is the orderly quest for truth, the rational perception of reality and all its facets, and the adaptation of man’s behaviour to its laws. So long as we follow the path of reason, we shall not move far from the lighted circle of civilisation. Its enemies invariably lie among those who, for whatever motive, deny, distort, minimise, exaggerate, or poison the truth, and who falsify the processes of reason.”