Mikhail Bakhtin and the Importance of Dialogue


Well, it looks like we could be gearing up for a federal election in May. Yesterday, the Conservative Government handed down it’s 2011 federal budget.

The Liberal Party rejected the budget stating that the budget failed to reflect the priorities of Canadians. The Bloc Quebecois also rejected the budget claiming that it did not deliver on the Bloc’s expectations and Conservative promises. The New Democratic Party rejected the budget, but Jack Layton seems to have left an open door for possible amendments to the budget. And after everything has been said and done, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty states that the budget is not up for negotiation. What is wrong with this picture?

Yesterday’s political discussion as played out in the House of Commons and in the Canadian media, seemed to utilize a form communication that doesn’t involve actual dialogue. The issues that matter to all Canadians aren’t engaged in a meaningful way and partisanship is placed above the issues. When the main focus of any discussion is reduced to winning or losing, the political parties lose and more generally, Canadians lose.

There are any number of issues on which Canada’s political parties could find agreement. However, these issues, rather than becoming arenas for dialogue and communication, have become boundaries and structures for isolation and tools for undemocratic monologues.

Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), argued that a monologic or one-voice discourse tends to recognize only itself and fails to recognize alternative points of view. Partisanship is so deeply embedded within the political discourse in Canada that meaningful understanding becomes rare. At the federal level, there are four major partisan voices that dominate the political sphere. For each voice there is only one perspective, one ideology, one meaning.

While Bakhtin identifies that flaws of monologic discourse, he also suggest an alternative: dialogic discourse. This is the process through which one tests one’s own ideas and perspectives through the active engagement in dialogue with another. This is an ongoing process of understanding from which one’s perspective will never remain the same but rather is constantly transformed through communication, negotiation, and active attempt to understanding.

So in a word, dialogue.

In the political sphere, rhetoric such as “not open for negotiation” reflects a particular ideology. A true democratic society begins with leaders who apply democratic processes within their own acts of communication.

Throughout the discourse, we hear the standard keywords: healthcare, employment, economy. While each of the major political parties have allocated resources to these issues, the disconnect comes from a failure to truly engage the issues themselves. It’s not about the specific dollar investments, but rather about sitting down and coming up with workable solutions for issues that impact Canadians. How can we agree on a budget where the issues have never been discussed in a meaningful dialogue?

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