A good friend of mine wrote to me the other day about an increasingly rare privilege he enjoyed, courtesy of a visitor from Europe. In my friend’s words,
Yesterday we had a friend visit from Europe. We sat from about 7 PM to midnight just talking about anything from personal or work problems to politics and the time just flew by… The contrast with the limited ability of the well-educated Americans we have met here to really discourse was astounding. Free discourse and examination of competing ideas is fundamental to democracy yet most Americans today consider it either “impolite” or “bad manners” to reveal themselves in even random conversations. Most Americans have decided to live in a black or white world, not the grey that is the reality.
Imagine that! My friend’s European guest demonstrated both the ability to reason, distinguishing facts from theories and conjecture, as well as tolerance, the ability to entertain other points of view, even when they disagree with your own.
Remember when Americans enjoyed the cut and fray of conversation, the pleasure of minds working hard to shed light on difficult matters? Just as our bodies prosper from demanding physical chores, so too do our minds.
Sadly, discourse in the USA today, such as it is, is mostly polarized. It’s I’m right and you’re wrong, and the way I prove it is to outshout you. This is one reason why otherwise thoughtful people tend to avoid protracted or revealing conversations. What’s the point, when all the other person wants to do is to cow you, condemn you, or convert you?
That said, Americans are slowly losing the ability to converse, for lots of different reasons. Young people are educated indoctrinated to get a job, with “success” measured by their pay and benefits. They place little value on becoming educated, informed, critical thinkers. They’re constantly distracted by various electronic devices and video games, and constantly bombarded with trivial information masquerading as meaningful news.
Immersion in the trivial stifles creative discourse and is an ever-present threat, as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn warned us 35 years ago:
People also have the right not to know, and it is a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.
A large part of leading a meaningful life is healthy communal discourse. But our society no longer sees discourse — the true exchange of ideas — as valuable. You can’t put a dollar figure on it, you can’t sell advertising for it, you can’t assign a metric to it, so just abandon it.
Writing skills are also degenerating. My students have difficulty sustaining an argument in print. They have difficulty in conversing intelligently on a range of subjects. They can’t distinguish facts from propaganda, or they prefer to deny facts that disagree with their received opinions. And they are tainted by me-first American exceptionalism.
And it’s only gotten worse since 9/11. As my friend noted, “On top of the social attitudes of feeling that conversation on serious topics is outré, the post 9/11 suppression of free speech has had a devastating effect on private discussion of national politics.”
In these times of conformity and confusion and complicity with power, we need thoughtful and contrarian discourse more than ever.
Come, let us reason together. And let’s not be afraid of heated discussion. A controlled burn can stop the most raging wildfire in the mind. We all need to burn more brightly to shed the light that is the essence of an active mind and a thriving democracy.