Respectful Dissent

This morning I was inspired by remarks made by Dr. Maryanne Stevens, President of the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska. Dr. Stevens’ comments were the final remarks on a weekend retreat exploring the theme of what it means to be a Mercy college or university (for more information on Mercy institutions of higher education, please check out the Conference for Mercy Higher Education website. I believe Dr. Stevens’ remarks will eventually be posted there.)

I cannot do justice to Dr. Stevens’ remarks by attempting to paraphrase them here. However, I do want to share my thoughts regarding one concept introduced this morning: respectful dissent. Respectful dissent, according to Dr. Stevens, involves first listening with an open heart and mind. Then, we must turn inward and reflect upon what we have heard, before determining our response. Only after deep reflection, if we feel called to dissent, by virtue of our membership in a community we would look for ways to do so respectfully. Within the context of Dr. Stevens’ remarks, the community under discussion was the Catholic Church. She was able to offer several examples of respectful dissent within that faith community.

As I’ve thought about this concept throughout the day, I see that it has application for many areas of my life, including but not limited to my rocky relationship with Catholicism. In the workplace, as we struggle to define our roles and to intentionally create policies and programs which reflect our mission and values. In our civic and political engagements, as we strive to resolve difficult and contentious differences in our visions for the society in which we live. In our families, where we hope to create safe and trusting environments which feed our souls and allow us a safe place to land if we fall in life.

We live in a world which appears to have accepted wholeheartedly an adversarial model of disagreement, with a concomitant style of discourse which espouses confrontation and disrespect for those with differing views. We spend our energy shouting each other down, or worse shooting each other down. Respectful dissent would differ in that the process would include dialogue: both deep listening and deep speaking (from the center of ourselves, rather than from the surface, our egos). Its end goal would be lasting and transformative change, as opposed to declaring the loudest voice “the winner” and disenfranchising “the loser”.

 Are there situations in which it would be inappropriate, or not be applicable, to engage in respectful dissent? I don’t know, however, I am doubtful that those who dissent from men like Moammar Gadhafi would be successfully able to take this approach. On a more personal level, do I know what it would look like if I attempted to bring it as a personal response into my daily life? Not really. But I suspect that if I am able to engage more often in respectful dissent, it will result in fewer embarrassing reflections on my hot-headed over-reactions, as well as the need for fewer apologies for steamrolling over other’s opinions. And I think I would like those changes quite a lot.