“Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other,
so we can have some conversation.”
So said Mark Twain, a wise and witty man with a singular way with words.
I’ve long thought Twain is giving us excellent advice and these days it’s especially compelling. Whether in the newspaper, online news feed, Twitter or cable TV, whatever the topic of the talk, chatter, dialogue, debate or argument—immigration, sexual harassment, racism, climate change or Donald Trump’s mental status—nearly all of what people are doing is communicating. They’re communicating information (“Dozens of People Recount Pattern of Sexual Misconduct by Las Vegas Mogul Steve Wynn” in the Wall Street Journal) or opinion (“The Problem with Calling Trump a Racist” in Rolling Stone) or, most often, both (“Why Did The Oscars Snub James Franco But Not Gary Oldman?” in the Huff Post; “Trump is Killing the American Dream” in The New York Times; and “The U.S. Can No Longer Hide from its Deep Poverty Problem” in The New York Times).
What is it getting us? More information and more opinion. Information begets more information and opinion. Opinion begets more opinion and information. With the unlimited supply of information and opinion we have the capacity to create, produce, share and retrieve nowadays, communicating can go on forever.
Where is it leading us? I fear not to any new place—at least so far. Given the overall culture in which the talk is happening, we’re headed down an accusatory, combative, moralistic and legalistic road. People are raising their voices on topics we’ve been silent about for far too long and horrendous and scary situations that didn’t exist ten or even five years ago. All well and good—maybe. For it doesn’t follow that talking about these things in the way that we are is or will lead to anything new.
That’s what I think Twain was alluding to in distinguishing between communication and conversation and pointing out that communication gets in the way of having a conversation. Communication is infinite regress. It digs a deeper hole. Conversation is emergent progress, not toward a specific goal but toward possible newness. It is movement up and out.
Take sexual harassment, one of the topics people are communicating about. What might conversation look like instead? Conversation would center around, or at least include, taking a look at HOW we’re talking. When what’s talked about is the Who and the What and the Why, we’re using language to communicate information and opinion.
Switching to or adding How would be speaking to each other about process. It would be embracing emergence and engaging in the creative activity of making meaning. It would be creating the tool (-and-result) for a different path from the accusatory, combative, moralistic and legalistic one we’re on.
I offer a few How’s that might help us have some conversations.
How are feeling about the way we’re talking? We’re in a toxic culture; are we contributing to it or to changing it? How come we’re playing the blame game? Can we create a new game? How did we get on the legalistic path to change? How can we create space for other ways to go? What rules of discourse—unstated rules—are those who are talking using? What happens when someone violates these rules? What’s the language game everyone’s playing? Can we play a different one? What would we need to do? Are we talking in such a way that we might discover something? Can we take the risk of not knowing where the conversation might lead us?
You might be thinking that all I’ve written is communication. If so, I invite you to have some conversation with it.