Americans are losing the art of talking with each other, simple, respectful conversation – in its place a nasty imposter, the bad habit of talking at each other. Historically, this is an unlearning of skills Americans always had – and took pride in deploying. We need to rediscover these skills.
De Tocqueville, in the 1830s, thought Americans were unusually gifted at solving problems with conversation, what he called “the uncomfortable face to face.” Perhaps our pioneer forefathers had seen enough of life’s sadness to up-value problem-solving, little time for grudge-carrying or conceit. Maybe there was a greater appreciation for America’s freedom and for truth over-opinionated nonsense.
The ability of a society to lose perspective is not unique to America or this time. It has historical antecedents. They suggest danger when societies drift away from objectivity, faith, and respect – reflected in their ability to carry on a conversation.
François de La Rochefoucauld was a French writer of the mid-1600s, a time of recurring riots in France – and a storming of their parliament. He bemoaned the loss of conversation and the default to arrogance. “Conceit causes more conversation than wit.” People forgot to listen, learn, and care. We are there.
The art of basic conversation – politics, religion, art, or science – begins with an interest in learning, which involves some degree of respect – however modest – for the person with whom you are talking. In the best talks, perspectives are exchanged, and both parties are richer.
Persuasion – when views are strongly held – involves patience from all, interest in finding and refining truth, assuming some objective truth exists. Cicero and Socrates were masters, but a monologue is not conversation; dismissing facts, experience, or logic – all elements of truth-finding – ends the thing at the start. So does intentional misinterpretation, shifting premises, and avoiding honest correction.
Funny – or not funny – that is, here we are. The doggedly unthinking, or simply dogmatic, make conversations mighty hard. “There are seven odd numbers between one and ten.” “Are you sure, seems like just five to me – 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9.” “Nope, seven.”
“Gosh, do not see seven.” “You are not looking – what makes you think five?” “Well, there are evens between 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9, and 10 is even.” “Nope, some people identify 2 and 4 as odds, others 6 and 8 as odds, although most who see 2 and 4 as odds do not see 6 and 8 as odds, so it comes back to seven.”
“Golly, I thought numbers were either odd and even, not both, just rules of math, like physics or biology.” “No, it is all relative since different people define them differently.” “So, what is the point of defining numbers even and odd if they are interchangeable?” “Well, when people want more odds, they define them that way, more evens the other way.” “Does that not undermine truth, violate timeless properties of math?” “Nah, just like the alphabet – no vowels, that is just a tradition.”
So, yes, some conversations go in circles because one party will not concede the obvious, that objective truth exists. Those disputes are hard to resolve. But other conversations are workable, and we owe it to one another to work harder at them.
Most people understand freedom, for example, in their own life. They appreciate making their own decisions. The obvious extension is to permit all Americans a wider circle for the exercise of constitutional freedoms, even if some value one more highly or do not see the importance of another.
Reality is that our Republic is based on certain absolutes, including math, physics, biology, and constitutional law. While we can debate the breadth of rights – and should – to maximize our freedoms in the context of maximum freedom for others, we cannot stop talking. We also cannot adopt nonsense as a starting point, making everything relative because all is not relative; freedom from riots is more important than freedom to riot. Civic order is the basis for peace and conversation.
Finally, we cannot lose the basic art of conversation or walk away from it. In this art lies the ability to keep, craft, shape, and remake the order we call civil and to restore the respect on which all else relies. Leave it to an Englishman, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, born the year Thomas Jefferson became president, to remind us not only that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” but that “the true spirit of conversation consists in building on another man’s conversation, not overturning it.”
So yes, objectively, Americans are losing the art of talking with each other, gradually losing respect for untenable propositions offered as truth, impatient with unpacking them, disentangling them, demonstrating that – after all – odd and even numbers are different, principles and rules different, truth and opinions different, and that these differences matter. But that is why – after all – we must return to perfecting the fine art of conversation to get back to truth. Without truth, we are truly lost.
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