Circling the Wagons: A Dialogue Challenge

I have had a recent encounter with two different bloggers (one Christian and one Buddhist) that reflect a common obstacle to dialogue. Let’s call it “Circling the Wagons”.

When someone outside a group makes a critical statement about some key word or concept used by that group, a group member may run to inordinate defense of that word. “Inordinate” in that they give a full-blown whole-package defense instead of admitting that controversy on the issue exists even within the group or that they themselves have debated the issue.   Not only that, but they then pull together everything in the group and defend it as if it is a whole package. Heck, they may even defend other sects within their larger group which they may normally criticize.

Group members are more comfortable discussing doubt and controversy within their group. So if someone is perceived as outside the group, criticism can be perceived as full-go attacks and the wagons are circled to be sure to keep the enemy totally out.

Imagine the following triggers that may cause the wagons to circle:

  • Buddhism –> Merit, Enlightment, Mindfulness
  • Christianity –> Faith, Miracles, Religion
  • Americans –> Patriotism, Freedom
  • Clevelanders –> Lake Erie, Football

To avoid this unproductive block in communication, the outsider can try establish trust with the listener — this takes time and hard to do in the blog world without facial expressions and tone of voice. The Insider, on the other hand, can improve dialogue by recognizing this reflex and allowing more vulnerability, gentleness and openness–not that I am good at that. 😦

Questions for readers:

  • Can you give other examples of other key words for certain groups that trigger the “Circling of the Wagons”.
  • What are other solutions to this unproductive block in relationship that you have tried?


  • Laager: another term for “Circle the Wagons”


Filed under Blogging, Critical Thinking

8 responses to “Circling the Wagons: A Dialogue Challenge

  1. atimetorend

    Mac vs. PC users…

    My personal solution is usually the first one you note, recognizing my own ‘insider’ reflex to defend, and trying to step outside to be a more neutral party. I find that effective even if I am highly partisan, taking a stand as a neutral, to try to point out the good and bad on both sides. Not perhaps the most desirable option, but often the only prodcutive way forward in such a conversation.

  2. joshuaa

    Are you talking about the situation where you step in to show them that a word isn’t as unitary in meaning as they suppose, or where your point depends upon you being able to make a distinction, and they respond as if you’re attacking a sacred cow?

    If so, I think you nailed the basic categories (to answer question 1). It’s normally the labels that people strongly identify with, that they get most defensive about. So things like nation, religion, race, political affiliation.

    I just saw a gripping trainwreck on a message board where someone made the claim that “Arabs only respond to force”. You can imagine the rest. He managed to drag in “Middle-easterners” and “Muslims” as well.

    One that’s really fun is the label “hipster”, since no hipster will admit to being a hipster, and hipsters want to self-identify as not fitting any particular label. Their form of “circling he wagons” is to just ignore and shun anyone who pushes the issue too hard. I’m pretty sure the movement has already jumped the shark, so that tactic will no longer work, but it was fascinating while it lasted. Reminds me vaguely of the Philosophy Bro t-shirt about modal epistemology.

  3. @ ATTR — thanks for sharing

    @ Joshuaa — Is this JS Allen? Your WordPress URL is not activated. Why the change?
    Yes, you understood me — sacred cows trigger such strong responses, that the person can not hear the actual content of your question or statement.
    I had to look up “hipster“.
    But the examples you gave of “Arabs”, though classic exaggeration, was not what I mean. Instead, let’s say, when speaking to a modern almost-secular Muslim American and you mentioned “jihad” and because they are tired of non-Muslims misunderstand how broad “jihad” is, the next thing you know they are defending halal while they eat like the typical person at a US bowling alley.

  4. JS Allen

    Yep, I was experimenting with a account. It seems to give me e-mail notifications the same way as my normal blog sign-in, so I may stick with it and set up an avatar.

    I see more clearly what you are saying now. Jihad is a good example, and hijab fits in the same category — I’ve seen people step on a hornet’s nest by mentioning hijab and having it be interpreted as a claim that Arab men are wife-beaters. In Christian circles, “hell” is probably a good one, where people circle the wagons by insisting that your view is not “nuanced” enough. Anatta seems to do it for Buddhists. For a certain class of Indians, sati might do the same.

    I don’t think there’s an easy way to deal with it. Probably the best bet is to just tactfully withdraw from discussing things with people who are too insecure, immature, or reactionary. Prefacing your interactions with a few disclaimers and taking time to build up trust is always important, but there is a level where it can be excessive. If people are able to poke fun at their sacred cows, that’s usually a good sign.

    Speaking of poking sacred cows, do you ever watch “Outsourced”? This episode was hilarious; the Anglo call center manager is culturally insensitive, and finally realizes what he’s been doing:

    Realizing his transgressions, Todd calls the office team together. He apologizes and promises he will stop touching. Trying to make light of the situation, he picks up a multi-armed figurine off a desk and explains that it could’ve been worse. It could have been this guy who was all hands, he jokes. The office is appalled. Todd has just made fun of Lakshmi, a Hindu goddess.

    Grabbing idols and playing with them is very bad in India. IMO, people who can laugh at a show like that are far more likely to be able to talk about their sacred cows without getting defensive. Chris Rock, Jeff Foxworthy, etc. fulfill an important role in enabling pluralistic dialog. That’s why I love Web sites like, stuffwhitepeoplelike, stufffundieslike, and so on.

  5. Boz

    atheists and the definition of ‘atheism’. (and to a lesser extent the definition of ‘agnosticism’).

  6. Can you give examples of other key words for certain groups

    Connecting the word “atheist” to “fundamentalist”, with either glib or serious intent, seems to trigger this response.

    Great timing with this Sab. I’ve found myself way too emotionally drawn in to this type of conversation on another site just this weekend. I thought I was working towards establishing trust but now I’m in doubt as to my effectiveness. I think you’ve mentioned this before, but attempting to start with agreed-upon definitions, or accepted premises, seems to help. It also seems to put the goals of everyone involved very much out-in-the-open. It seems to take the fun out of things for some, or at least limit their out-of-hand contributions.

    @JSA and others,
    Have you heard of the book, “Are You a Christian Hipster”?

  7. Us psychics don’t use “timing” we simply listen to the Force.

  8. Us psychics don’t use “timing” we simply listen to the Force.

    🙂 That is awesome!

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