|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.
Thanks for a very thoughtful commentary on how to engage in discussions. I find that it is very difficult to do this in today's political or religious climate.
Many people I know make disparaging ad hominem remarks that preempt the possibility of discussing most serious issues. It is disappointing when the first comment about an issue is to the effect that even questioning a particular point of view is a sign of idiocy or worse.
The best discussions that I have are among people with whom I agree in principle, but who are willing to take a "devil's advocate" position to explore other sides to an issue. Discussions like these are rare, however, and more often I find myself silent rather than raising questions in a group that does not welcome debate.
Hi James -Indeed when folks, as they often do begin speaking in disparaging or insulting ways of people that they disagree with it is difficult to have any meaningful conversation, thus my comment about wasted time.
i do have a few friends who differ with me, mostly on politics that I am able to achieve these really fruitful talks with.
I have done the devil's advocate things with friends too.
You sound like a measured and thoughful conversationalist. In my experience, there are not too many people like you around. I find that most people want and need to be RIGHT about everything, and this leads to arguing rather than discussion. It would be good if people were more tolerant of diverse beliefs and opinions, but I think that goes against humankind's tendency towards tribalism and conformity. I don't talk to people in real life about religion, because it just leads to conflict.
Hi Violet - Something that I hope that I conveyed in my post is that I have not always achieved this ideal. However as I get older I am doing much better. If others are civil I would say that I do pretty good. If others are obnoxious I must admit to reciprocating at times.
The tribalism thing is big. Folks really identify with sides when it comes to politics, religion and social issues. That makes conversation really difficult.
From being a regular here at your blog Brian, I would definitely imagine you as being a wonderful conversationalist.
I agree, expressing one's views in a civil way is important. It's a respect thing as well. I'm also big on not judging and not being judged. I don't want to be in the middle of a conversation with someone, only to have them judge or make assumptions.
Enjoy your day!
Hi Naida - Thanks so much.
I agree that the judgement thing is a major obstacle to civility and communication. I find that I have to be careful to minimize doing that.
A good conversationalist is also a good, interested listener. It sounds as if you are both. Thoughtful and interesting post, as always.
Hi Suko - I think that many, myself included, forget just how important it is to listen. It is al least half the equation.
Another wonderfully thought provoking post. I agree it is so important to listen and, if the need arises, to agree to disagree for as you rightfully say we all have our own opinions on things.
I also like to question things as though you may be regarded as 'foolish' for not knowing something far better this than remain in ignorance for the sake of not wanting to appear foolish.
Hi Tracy- Thanks so much.
You are so right on the issue of asking questions. I think that staying silent when someone is talking about something that one does not know much about is usually seen as being unknowing and uninterested. The way to learn is to ask questions in such situations.
Your ideal conversation sounds right up my street.
I must say I don't very often get into heated discussions in which people want to be absolutely right but it may well be that I just avoid those with whom I will clash. On the other hand I tend to be provocative.
Tribalism is indeed a big problem but I tend to point it out because I feel when people identify with somthing that i would call tribal they simply stop thinking and I will always tell them. I don't enjoy talking to a robot.
Some of the best discussions I have ever had have been at university.
Have you ever watched the Films of Eric Rohmer? If not you might want to give him a go as his films are often full of conversations between a few people. Some people think his films are boring, but for me, they're fascinating. It's like being in a room listening to people talk.
Hi Caroline - I may be totally wrong on this, but in the back of my mind I have the impression the in your part of the world folks are a bit more civil. On the US, over the past several years all too many people, on all sides are,downright nasty especially when it comes to controversial issues.
Agreed about tribalism, with that said, I feel that if I am not careful that I can fall into a bit of it myself.
Hi Guy - I have seen several of Rohmer's films and I really like then. Speaking of movies, I must mention the ultimate conversation film, My Dinner with Andre.
I had some great conversations in collage too. Luckily I am still in touch with some of my livelier friends.
One of my favourite posts by you, thank you Brian! This is definitely one to bookmark and come back to - you've made so many good points. I particularly agree with you on the value of calm and thoughtful conversation.
Hi Lucy - Thanks so much. As I mentioned, this is a bit of an ideal and in retrospect I wish some of my conversations were a bit calmer.
What a thoughtful, and thought-provoking post, Brian. I will be another one returning to read it again. I'm someone who is often very quiet and the listener in conversations rather than someone who manages to join in and speak a lot, but it's something I'm trying to practise.
Hi Lindsay - Thanks so much.
I actually no longer like big groups for a conversation. I find two or three to be best.
It think that it is great to try to speak up more. It is a nicer feeling to do so if one is with people that they are comfortable with.
I have never liked "debate for debate's sake" or the "devil's advocate" approach to a discussion. For me, I like to discuss in order to learn, which means that there are no "winners" in a conversation, only expanded horizons and new perspectives.
I hate being talked at instead of talked to.
I have a colleague who in a conversation will introduce his point by saying, "let me build on your point..." I like that. It means he has been listening and has something to contribute not just wants to air his opinion.
With regards to the whole speaking up issue--I like small groups as opposed to large forums--and really speak in public, unless it's my job.
Great blog post, Brian. Discussions about discussions are definitely interesting. :)
Thanks so much Jane. It sounds like we are in agreement on most of these issues. When I was younger I liked big discussion groups. Now I like them small.
A good conversation can be very refreshing but people who insist on proving their opinions are always right can be quite tiresome. I dislike getting lost in long debates - sometimes a few carefully chosen words can mean so much more than a thousand explanations.
Hi Delia - I would say that I do like to get involved with long in depth discussions. However if it is all debate it gets tiresome and is usually pointless.
Ah, Brian, this is a good primer for holding debates, and the internet would certainly be a better and more tolerant place if we enforced it.
Hi Miguel - Indeed the internet would as well as a lot of other places!
Another very interesting post!
Your ideas as to what constitutes an ideal conversation are very idealistic, as well as altruistic. I commend you for espousing them, but alas, human nature being what it is, such conversations are, I think, very rare indeed!
When I was in my early twenties, I would have very loud arguments with my mother, who is a staunch conservative. At the time, I was much more liberal than she was, and her views seemed very stifling to me, especially in regards to women's rights. I fiercely believed my views were right, and hers, wrong. Period. In fact, I perceived my parents as being a benign totalitarian government back then....lol.
As I've gotten older, I've learned to have more compassion toward people with divergent views. After all, as you say, it's not whether one is 'right' or 'wrong', but whether truth is being sought.
Also, nowadays I'm much more moderate in my views. Because of this, I have become increasingly aware of just how intolerant toward each other Republicans and Democrats are. Each party just LOVES to demonize the other. Of course, self-analysis is by no means easy, or comfortable, but if each party were to engage in more of it, they'd realize that the truth does not reside EXCLUSIVELY with either one of them. In fact, I see each party as being guilty of glaring errors. Democrats, for instance, are very interested in upholding minority rights and protecting the environment, but care not a whit about the rights of the unborn, These are adamantly defended by Republicans, who, incredibly enough, are totally indifferent to the system of public education, without which the freedoms they defend would ironically be impossible. I also dislike their total indifference to women's rights and the environment, as well as their insistence on total freedom from government regulations for corporations.
End result: I am registered as an Independent voter. Therefore, I vote for the candidate, and not the party.
In reference to religion, I feel the same way I do about political parties, although I still identify as basically Catholic. Those who are ardent believers love to think that they are on the side of truth, but even a cursory reading of the Old Testament will reveal some VERY disturbing things about the Judeo-Christian God..... On the other hand, absolute atheism seems to me to be a highly unpleasant way to live. I have yet to resolve this conflict within myself, so therefore I would not want to be involved in any debate with a believer on one side, and an atheist on the other, as it would turn out to be impossible for me to say who was 'right' and who was 'wrong'.
Ultimately, since all of us share a common humanity, I do believe that this should take precedence over any intellectual disagreements that might arise. Ironically, I'm being just as idealistic as you here! Lol,
There's one point on which I am NOT willing to concede that my opponent might be 'right', and that is on the subject of abortion. Where a human life is concerned, I don't think one can "agree to disagree". Beyond this one point, though, I am willing to consider arguments "from the other side".
Thanks for another great post!! : )
Hi Maria - More great thoughts!
One thing that I did not mean to say, my view are not always or even often in the middle.
For instance, I am adamantly Pro - Choice and in the US I strongly favor and the Democrats. Yet I think I really understand the Pro - Life position and believe folks who hold it are good intentioned. I think that each side is just emphasizing a different aspect of morality. This is true of many other issues, We tend to label folks with differing viewpoints as immoral when we just hold opposing moral codes. I may think that it better to adhere to my code, but that is not the same thing as Demonizing the other side.
I really think that good intentioned folks really can have great conversations. I bet you that you and I could even where we disagree :)
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