|Illustration by Cat Troiano
This post is not a “how – to” aimed at advising folks how to conduct discussions. My readers will no doubt have their own divergent opinions on this subject. There really is no right or wrong way to engage in dialogue. This is just a collection of some of my personal ruminations upon what I have found to be the most satisfying and enlightening way to talk about things.
My family and friends will tell you that I am a talker. I love to chat, and very importantly, I do like to listen. After years and years of dialog with all kinds of people I have some ideas that I want to share.
Today I will confine myself to examining discussions about things that do not have a direct and practical impact upon out lives. I am referring to discussions upon art, literature, philosophy, religion, politics etc. I will save the practical everyday stuff for another day.
It is important to point out that I do not always engaged in the “perfect” discussions of the type that I will outline. I must admit that I have from time to time I have become involved in wildly undisciplined and/or heated exchanges. Instead, I put this out as something of an ideal, but an ideal that sometimes, with the right people, can be achieved. Thus I have at times participated in such lofty conversations.
We also read and hear lots exhortations directed at folks who are too quite, too afraid to express their opinions. Such advice urging folks to come out of their shells may indeed be worthy, but it has never been a problem for me or the people who are generally around me. Thus my ruminations will not encompass experiences of the too shy and the unexpressive.
What many folks define as controversial subjects make for great conversations. When I am with good conversationalists who I either know, or who I sense are game for it, I love to engage in subjects such as religion and politics. There was a time when I was just as enthusiastic for such talks in most public situations and with anyone, especially if others opened the door and initiated the talk. However in recent years I find that society has become so uncivil, and so many people, at least in the United States, just parrot talking points, often aimed at antagonizing others. These “canned” arguments, sentences and phrases are created by various interests and permeate our airwaves.
These days it seems that almost any group of random people includes those who are intolerant and dismissive to those who harbor differing views. I find that such people exhibit all forms of political and religious views. I firmly believe that one needs to be intellectually honest, thus I recognize people that there are lots of folks who mostly agree with me on issues such as religion and politics, but who are among the worst of the intolerant and close minded. There was a time that I enjoyed engaging and debating these people regardless of the side that they were on. As I get older however, I find that there is too little time or energy for wasted conversation where no one learns anything.
I do love to chat with folks I disagree with, especially if they are calm and thoughtful conversationalists. When it comes to people who I have never delved into controversial waters with previously, I am never the first to initiate, as I feel that it is a bit too provocative to be the first one to jump into such pools. I welcome it when people initiate such talks with me however. I particularly enjoy it when folks begin to talk religion with me. I must point out that my gratification stemming from such an encounter is not that of some of my fellow non- believers who take such encounters as an excuse to begin bashing religion and mocking people. I know someone who claims that he “intellectual destroys” people who attempt to preach religion to him. Personally I do not posses such intellectual firepower to lay waste to folks whose views differ from mine. If I did, I certainly would gain nothing by carpet - bombing their viewpoints. Instead when someone begins to talk religion with me I do take it as an open door for me to express my own beliefs. I strive to do so respectfully and with reason. Just as importantly I also take pains to listen and try to understand the other person’s beliefs. Of course this perfect conversation that I am setting up does not always come to be. I do recall one woman who, initially began to espouse the virtues of her religion to me. When I calmly and respectfully (I really treat these situations with kid gloves and go out of my way to listen, not to sound hostile, aggressive, dismissive or confrontational) expressed my belief concerning the existence of God, she literally ran from me. Many situations yield great results however. I have had insightful and enlightening conversations with folks arising out of these encounters. I recall a few years ago during a hospital stay having a roommate who was a lay minister who began to talk religion with me. I sensed that he was a little taken aback when I told him that I was a non - believer. However we proceeded to have a fascinating conversation for hours, on multiple topics relating to religion. The nature and tone of this talk actually led to very little debate.
I am beginning to me more and more skeptical of debate for what I would describe as “debate’s sake. “ I do concede that when an idea is too easily accepted by society or the powers that be, playing devil’s advocate may be very useful. However, except for such fairly uncommon situations, our society, from the mass media all the way down to individuals, is teeming with people who have decided that argument is such a good thing that it should be initiated whenever possible and in defense of any position. Sometimes it is driven by the need to oppose certain politicians, public figures and groups. Folks take on positions just to be in opposition to public figures. In my opinion, this is a terrible way to reach truth or understanding.
Of course I am not arguing against all debate. Such a contention would be sillier then the ceaseless argument for the sake of argument that I am complaining about. However, in my opinion the most fruitful debates spontaneously sprout within thoughtful conversations that also involve a fair amount of agreement. Furthermore they are not exercises in showing up one’s opponent through superior verbal and debating skills. A good debate under the right conditions will illustrate one’s reasoning and highlight a different way of looking at things to one’s counterpart.
The pure debate format seems to be such a flawed way to communicate. Rhetorical skills take precedence over truth and wisdom. Parties are loath to admit that agree or to see eye to eye on particular points even when they inwardly would have come to a consensus. Once again, I must emphasize that I am not arguing against spirited and even contentious dialogue. Instead I am arguing that disagreements should arrive naturally and that discussions should not be contests where the participants fear to agree on anything due to the danger of “losing” the argument. Of course civility and respect are also key components.
So what are the elements of my ideal conversation? It would involve two or three people who were not afraid to express their views but who are very civil. Folks would delve into controversial areas fearlessly. Such intellectual boldness actually is encouraged by such politeness. People will carefully listen to one another. Areas that people agree upon will be explored and delved into further. Areas that people disagree on will spark debate and further discussion. If folks feel the need to parrot a popular line that they heard in the media they should acknowledge that they are doing so and explain why it particularly rings true to them.
The above represents a perfect situation that can never really be achieved, at least not consistently. I have not always, and will likely not always engage in discussions that adhere to the above format. Furthermore many of my readers will have different ideas as to what elements constitute great conversation. This is not just an intellectual exercise however. If I understand what kind of talk yields the most enlightening and fulfilling results, it can help me to seek out people as well as create situations conducive to such communications. The end result is a ultimately better way to intellectually explore the Universe.