A new dictionary to explain all those hot-button words

By John Backman. Reprinted from The Huffington Post.

You’re talking with a few people about a controversial topic. A couple of them disagree with you, and they’re more than happy to explain why. Listening to them, you gradually notice that they keep using a certain word—and you have no idea what they mean.

You’re not alone in this. So often, the words we use to discuss current events take on nuances that don’t fit the dictionary definitions. In a debate over abortion, for instance, fetus and baby don’t just refer to the “party in utero”; they signal specific positions on the issue. The same is true of gay vs. homosexual, or radical Islam, or progressive as opposed to liberal, or big government.

How can we talk with people when we don’t even understand their words?

That question has bedeviled an array of practitioners in the field of dialogue and deliberation. Several years ago, they decided to do something about it: create a dictionary of hot-button terms and explore how every side in a debate uses them.

That was the origin of the AllSides Dictionary. More than 30 mediators and educators worked to create the online resource, which currently includes nearly 400 discussions of such terms as abortion, Zionism, climate change, affirmative action,and right-wing. Contributors were carefully chosen to span the sociopolitical spectrum: they include progressives and conservatives, Mormons and atheists, Marxists and capitalists, and most people in between.

No editorial board can encompass every perspective, of course, which is why the AllSides Dictionary is committed to being open source and always in progress. All comments to the entries are carefully considered and, wherever possible, incorporated in the definitions.

An agreement this past summer brought the dictionary under the aegis of AllSides, a media tech company that helps people see, understand, and discuss issues from multiple perspectives. The AllSides website is well-known for its front-page grid, where visitors can quickly find the news of the day presented by a full range of sources—each with a crowdsourced, five-point Bias Rating that identifies the source’s place on the political spectrum.

The AllSides Dictionary is one example of a renewed interest in civility and dialogue occasioned by the nastiness of the presidential campaign just past. This fall, the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation devoted its biannual conference to sharing stories of healing divisions over political and religious belief, class, race, and other issues. Many organizations have launched new efforts or redoubled their commitment to their core activities—like Living Room Conversations and its structured small group gatherings, in which people cross divides to engage in rich discussions on issues of concern.

These renewed efforts at dialogue cannot come fast enough, say many practitioners in the field. The election, as they see it, exposed not only the nation’s eroding ability to talk and listen across divides, but also the longtime exclusion of a profoundly disaffected population: white working-class individuals who feel that political elites and social change have left them behind. All of this calls for a rethinking of how dialogue is conducted, whom to include (everyone, ideally), and how we can get to a point where critical masses of people revert to dialogue instead of conflict as their first instinct.

Learning what “the other side” means by “that word” is a good start. Which makes the AllSides Dictionary a valuable addition to the post-election dialogue landscape.

As a regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, John Backman writes on contemplative spirituality and its surprising relevance for today’s deepest issues. He authored Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths, 2012), and his articles have appeared in numerous faith-based publications, progressive and conservative. John recently presented at the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

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