The Civilizing Effects of Conversation

From Kamran Nazeer’s Send in the Idiots:  

What might be politically valuable about conversation is the insincerity it encourages… Conversation flourishes when we entertain each other. Conversation flows when we, each of us, flit between different points of view. Conversation sometimes requires us to ask questions, the answer to which we are not interested in ourselves, but which we feel the other person might enjoy or appreciate the opportunity to provide. Conversation, in short, promotes civility. And a society that is marked by deep disagreement and characterized by a high level of heterogeneity should certainly place a high value on civility. It may not be possible for use to agree. But it may be possible for us to disagree entertainingly and be able to disagree in ways such that we can see and even expound each other’s point of view.

-Nazeer, 33

One of the things that struck me from that passage was the idea that the more heterogeneous the society, the more value it should place on civility. While that certainly makes sense, I’m not sure I’ve seen that happening. I think the societies I’ve experienced as being the most civil are the ones where people have less personal space and are therefore much more aware of the effects of their actions on others. Then again, maybe I’m just projecting, because I’ve always prized civility, and I’ve always tried to be aware of how I might be affecting those around me, although, like most people, I’m sure I don’t always succeed.

I’ve actually gotten into arguments with people about whether politeness is a form of dishonesty or not, and how much it should be practiced. Nazeer notes that as a child, he thought most parts of conversation were forms of insincerity, but over time, he grew to understand their value. Do you agree with his statement above, about the importance of conversation in promoting civility? Do you think it could work?

As much as I think it is important for people to engage in conversation in order to understand the views of others, I think there is often confusion amongst ordinary people about whether they are engaged in a conversation or an argument. Nazeer makes this distinction quite well in that same chapter of his book, and I can see why he would have thought about it so much, given that so many of the people he is around as a policy advisor are prone to the argument/debate mindset. But there’s no room for insincerity in a debate. Each party has to believe they are right, and set out to win. In a conversation, where Nazeer finds the room, even the requirement for insincerity, though, people are allowed to say things for the entertainment of their audience, to explore a previously unexplored position, to say things just to keep the conversational flow going.

In a world where we increasingly find all of our words recorded in one manner or another, is there less room now for such conversational exploration of our selves? We seem to be becoming less tolerant of the idea that over time, people change their minds. Certainly we see this in the way we treat our politicians, and how handy the buzzword “flip-flopper” has become in trashing the opposition. If they’ve ever said something the possible opposite of what they are saying now, someone will find a record of it. I know one person even turned down an invitation to write for this blog, hardly intended as a place for serious policy statements, because they* are involved in the political sector and thought this could someday badly impact their career, should they later find themselves in the position of needing to contradict something written here and recorded on the internet forevermore. But this blog, and perhaps blogs in general, is more in the realm of conversation, not argument, and should be treated as such.

Over dinner this weekend, my mother was recounting some anecdotes from the commencement address Dick Gordon had given this year’s class at UNC. He had told the story of the time, early in his career, that he had gone to interview a Native American tribal chief. He had been recording the interview, and at the end rewound a bit of the tape to play back so he could make sure it had gotten everything. The chief became enraged, and his son translated that his father believed that when we spoke, our words traveled to the heavens to be judged by the god(s). If they were worthy, the words would be returned to the earth for people to remember. (The problem, therefore, was that the recorder had captured the words before the gods could get them. They solved the problem by completely rewinding the tape and playing it all the way through, thereby re-releasing the words.)

This seems relevant to the idea of conversation as a means of exploring the self and society. In conversation, we may say some things that strike us a extraordinarily profound insight. Other things will pass out of our memory as banal, stupid, or wrong. Some things are worthy; others are not. If we stop seeing conversation, with actual people, in writing, by whatever means, as a way of exploring the world for better understanding, and instead start treating everything as an argument, how will we ever learn anything? How will we maintain civility?


*Yes, I am using the obfuscatory, generic, singular “they,” and yes, it is a linguistically correct thing to do, in use since at least the time of Shakespeare.

3 Responses to The Civilizing Effects of Conversation

  1. Mary says:

    Conversation to promote civility makes sense. It allows people to see how they are alike, rather than different. Most people love their families, want to make some contribution to the world, want some kind of personal achievement. If I talk to someone whose views about the world are much different from mine (for example, my neighbor), if we talk about our children, spouses, lawn, teaching materials (she home schools her children and I teach in public institutions) then a conversation in which we disagree, while possibly unsettling, doesn’t feel as threatening.

    I have had to come to this conclusion over the years. I really used to enjoy arguing with people about various and sundry things, and had to learn this makes most people uncomfortable. I still enjoy a hearty discussion about various issues, but I usually try to get a sense of how comfortable people are with these exchanges. When I disagree, I try to even make that into conversation, more or less inviting people to tell me how they have come to their point of view. it can be very enlightening, and it has made me less “knee-jerk” in my reactions.

    One difference is in my classroom. After I have had a chance to get to know people, i sometimes try to encourage a “hearty discussion” in my classroom. The discomfort among some groups is palpable. What I find out, though, is when people don’t talk, they have been harboring secret resentments, often based on misperceptions or misunderstanding. Other times they are based on “conventional wisdom” which has not been explored.

    I like to think I value courtesy and not making people uncomfortable, but I find that when we repress certain questions (or challenges) we have about certain things, it sometimes results in mistaken conclusions.

  2. Dana says:

    That’s a good point, Mary. I like talking to people who are different than me, if they’re not trying to engage me in an argument. One of the people I’ve been friends with the longest, since 6th grade, is almost as different as can be, (well, he’s not a Republican anymore, but he’s hardly a mainstream Democrat now, either,) and part of the fun of talking to him is that I always know I’ll hear something from a point of view quite foreign to my own. I mean, I’ve had discussions with him about the merits of humanism, followed by an invitation to go skeet shooting.

    Many of the people we went to school with, though, don’t understand why I’m friends with him, because they have a specific image in their head of what he’s like. But I remember when I realized that talking to him was always fun, as long as we avoided certain topics I knew we disagreed on. I’ve tried explaining that to them, but I guess they’re stuck on the idea that they’d have to have an argument with him. They’re missing out.

    Maybe people are afraid to have conversations sometimes because they don’t think the other person will listen? Listening is my favorite part. You can learn so many things! Maybe people wouldn’t repress conversations or questions if they were more sure the conversation wouldn’t turn into a debate.

  3. Heather Nicholson says:

    Its funny because I have conversations with people all the time about different medical issues. It is funny because everyone seems to have their own ideas on how to treat their illness. To me it all goes back to education and their background or lack their of. Sometimes you are better of letting them talk and giving them advice according to what you are trained on knowing good and well they are going to do what they think is best anyway. Sometimes you can talk until you are blue in the face and it does not do any good. People are going to do what they want because of their beliefs or values. The best I can do is educate them on what I have been taught and let them do what they want with the information they have been given.

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