April 30, 2013

Savage Discourse

As my daughter learns (for what must be the 10th time) about the gecko effect from PBS' Wild Kratts, I wanted to think in print about exchanges. Many articles, inches of print, rants and raves have spent time on technology's effect on communication. I do not intend to go there. Education systems, instructors, and grammar fans have been vocal about tech's effect on syntax. I shall will myself away from this.

I wonder this morning what has happened to our ability to relate to each other.

We pull away from who we are, distancing ourselves from our opinions with "if you know what I mean"s, as Taylor Mali has addressed beautifully. We BIRG and CORF based on sports teams, belief systems, or which side of a political bill we support. Many, many statements and facebook status updates I see are in a context of us vs. them. We support this. Join our team by clicking here. Thwart them by signing this.

We've turned all of life into a competition split into teams, with rosters based on the topic at hand. No one wins, and more importantly, we never leave the field.

G. K. Chesterton addressed this mindless identification in a piece he wrote regarding patriotism:
'My country, right or wrong,' is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober.' No doubt if a decent man's mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.
In deciding my 'I' exists so completely in whatever group, communication and exchange are not about information or wisdom, but about loyalty. Someone's disagreement causes me to become defensive. I am less likely to hear, weigh, or value a conflicting input because it could make me disloyal to my chosen 'us'.

We are losing the art of civil discourse.

In discussions (which are often more debate or disagreement), we sling arrows at enemies instead of spreading ideas out on a communal table. There are topics that will always be high-stakes, with great emotional investment. Not every discussion, from where to build a facility to which translation of the Bible, from a municipal construction decision to a schedule change for a summer program, merits that sort of meaning.

Our first year of marriage, my husband & I fought most over the dishwasher. Never knew it was such a critical pre-marital counseling topic, did you? I remember one conversation in particular where I turned his loading methods into a soapbox about authoritarian parenting and how I self-righteously vowed our children would not live under such a choking state of legalism. Hi, Pot? I'd like to introduce myself: Kettle.

I'm troubled by our tendencies in conversation--my tendencies included--because it means we aren't listening. When we're not talking, we're waiting for the other person to stop talking so we can say the response we thought out while we could have been listening. We get defensive over a word choice or phrase, so a gracious space of helping someone else sort out their thoughts turns into a game of swords and shields. We are more quick to hear hurt or offense than we used to be. Instead of conversation being a casual tennis volley ("This happened at work today." "How'd you respond?"), we attempt ace after ace to triumph over an opponent ("So I said this to her!"). We rarely revisit topics and change our minds or modify a stance. We often speak in decided thoughts and closed ideas, conclusions not just drawn but inked in place--as this sentence itself demonstrates!

I fear that in time, with enough savage discourse, true exchange will cease and only agreement & pitched battles of conversations will remain. In the meantime, I will try to remember some key guidelines of conversation: 1-There is never a reason to be unkind. 2-Seek to understand before seeking to be understood. 3-We have two ears and one mouth to remind us how important it is to listen. 4-Agape love longs for the best interpretation of the facts. 5-Contempt has no place in conversation. Christ himself said calling another person a fool was sufficient to land me in hell. 6-God is never on 'my' side. At best, I have asked him and listened to what his spirit says regarding his heart.

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