Thursday, October 29, 2009

The weight of conversations

In the recent past I have written about things that generated some reactions we could describe as rife with anger, disrespect and contempt. Although I am not unused to criticism, sometimes this kind of derisive commentary on what you have said or written could be disempowering, not as mere attempts to belittle or ridicule. It is tempting to think whether those who respond in scathing language really understand that it says more about them who use such words than their target of criticism.

One might also wonder if this type of angry comment has proceeded from some miscalculation of strength, the belief that somehow an argument becomes more powerful if delivered in an angry and contemptuous tone. There is always the allure of the false machismo image that one conveys by posturing for power; that in order to show strength, one’s opinions must be expressed in a way that appears to demolish all others. Even to the extent of bullying, especially when friends applaud it as powerful and persuasive.

In our present-day society, it is commonplace that for fear of being slighted, or our fragile egos bruised, that we defend ourselves by shouting louder and more rudely than the next man or woman, to ensure that we are heard. We trade insults at each other with abandon, and assume that the only response to an insult is another, one that is even more hurtful than what was handed out.

This is true of our current public and political discourse. Sidestepping the power of rationality or the competition of ideas, our political parties and their leaders use attack ads, accusations, lies and innuendoes to discredit each other. To get elected to high office, one must possess the skill in destroying another person’s reputation rather than establishing his or her own. Their arguments tend to degenerate to the level of the personal, to ad hominem, venomous and destructive.

On a smaller scale, in one organization that I know, someone who misrepresented his bona fides for membership and had a penchant for posting remarks on the organization’s chat group using circumlocution and vile language, was even bestowed lifetime membership. Using to great advantage the emotional and political clout he invested on his close friends and supporters, he succeeded in turning scathing and depraved words into some sort of unguent that induced the minds of those who decided to embrace him to listen to him despite the fact that he was incontrovertibly an interloper. This is sometimes the irony or maybe the harsh reality of life today that the world oftentimes seems upside down. It is not about the truth we peddle but how many are willing to bend the truth that matters.

The most important lesson we learn through discourse with others is that how we speak or write is who we are. We can be content from understanding that some of us who freely use abusive speech to put others in a negative light are too often revealing a greater and less palatable truth about ourselves.

There is less civility in society because we tend to be more partisan. So we need to look at possible improvements beyond clich├ęs like “respecting our differences” or “following the Golden Rule.”

In the United States, a series of so-called “Intentional Conversations” has brought together civic, religious, business and cultural leaders for a day of genuine conversation since 1999. Begun by the Skirball Institute on American Values and sponsored by Marymount College in Palos Verdes, California, Intentional Conversations stress communication over confrontation and exchange of ideas over argument and sloganeering. The purpose of this exercise was to create a unique and memorable opportunity for real conversation that is sorely lacking in our fast-paced, competitive and confrontational world.

These Intentional Conversations ultimately have shown that people have a much greater understanding and tolerance for each other’s opinion when they share their personal experiences and values. People from different backgrounds, political and religious beliefs and even value systems are able to converse with each other and truly connect, and thus build bridges of communication and understanding. The conversation initiated by U.S. President Barack Obama between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge police Sergeant Joseph Crowley showed how a good example of Intentional Conversation can lead to a genuine exchange and reconciliation at a time when there was so much animosity.

Although many of us would accept the importance of dialogue and critical inquiry in social and personal relationships, there are others, however, who would prefer the easy virtue of obedience to legitimate authority in place of critical dialogues. The military and the Church are traditional examples of monolithic organizations that have historically thrived on dictum that emphasizes obedience first before criticism. Our moral and intellectual traditions generally determine our capacity to engage in critical dialogues. We cannot, for instance, tolerate our children debating around the dinner table every night challenging our every rule. This also holds true among adults who are given so much intellectual permissiveness to debate and challenge each other’s hard beliefs to the point of futility.

On the other hand, taking the point of view that nothing comes out of debate is to shut down critical discourse which is important in discerning the truth, on what measures to take to solve a problem at hand. In any exchange of ideas, the responsibility ultimately lies in someone selected to moderate the ebb and flow of arguments. Ideas by themselves are not self-correcting, although it would be the best of all situations where the better ideas rise to the top. However, this does not happen in a vacuum.

Aberrations can happen when those chosen to mediate or resolve a conflict decide to circumvent what is true and honest and substitute their own arguments to fill in the blanks. While this may be regarded as creative thinking, its result may not necessarily reflect what is deemed desirable. Here is where our moral and intellectual traditions come to play in order to delineate the acceptable parameters of decision-making.

When we have chosen to define the arguments in a conflict on both ends of a continuum, the most desirable way to a resolution is practically at the middle, where we try to accommodate both sides. This is usually how humans arrive at a solution, by achieving a compromise which may not necessarily be the best determination, but practical and less emotionally difficult to accept. It is much better than taking the extreme position of all or nothing.

If all our conversations will yield a happy medium or an acceptable balance of interests, then perhaps there will be lesser conflicts left unresolved. The worst scenario, however, is when dialogues are either left unmediated or manipulated by individuals with vested interests of their own; any resolution will always end up to be wanting and dismally unacceptable. In this case, the usefulness of dialectic and debate has been effectively compromised.

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