At a party in Washington, I once listened as a clueless couple, high-powered liberals both, descanted on their desire to know “more blacks and gays.” An African-American child happened to be sitting on the porch with us. It was a golden opportunity for the couple to realize half their goal, but they ignored her. Why not simply speak to the girl and get the ball rolling? I wondered. But now I realize that the pair was an ideal candidate to participate in one of the Ford Foundation’s “Difficult Dialogues.”
The program, which was announced earlier this month, actually pays colleges to hold “conversations” on such subjects as race, sexual identification and religion. The talk does not come cheap. Twenty-seven institutions of higher learning have been awarded $100,000 each, and 16 others are receiving smaller grants of $10,000.
Grounded in the notion that the U.S. is a place of darkling prejudice in the wake of 9/11, Difficult Dialogues was created, according to the press release, “in response to reports of growing intolerance and efforts to curb academic freedom at colleges and universities.” This situation, it turns out, can only be resolved by endless palaver.
A widespread confidence in the power of dialoguing persists even though there is no evidence that, say, President Clinton’s dialogue-heavy Initiative on Race actually brought about its stated goal of making us “one nation”; or that the grief counselors who descend on schools in the wake of tragedy, forcing people to “talk it over,” don’t do more harm than good; or that the business consultants who send company employees on grievance-airing retreats improve the bottom line.
The University of Nebraska, Omaha, has boldly named its initiative “Breaking Silence.” It will aim at “open, productive dialogues on issues of religion, sexuality and race.” Yes, the silence on all those subjects has been deafening. No doubt the Omaha dialogues will aide participants in “understanding the complex roots of bigotry,” as Ford’s grant prospectus puts it. And if participants are lucky and someone in the room announces his opposition to gay marriage, students will productively be told that they have real live bigots in their very midst.