About Dialogue

Many people believe civil discourse has deteriorated. I think civil discourse has deteriorated. In this post, I want to make a different point: that what we see today is not merely a deterioration of civil discourse, but a greater and more general loss of genuine dialogue.

Dialogue involves two or more parties.  In genuine dialogue, one party speaks and the other responds, in seriatum.  The second responds to the first and the first responds to the second, etc.  In each of these moves, when one responds to the other, they do not merely make statements—they make statements that directly respond to the last statementThis means, at a minimum, that each successive statement takes into account what was previously said and in some way builds upon it.  The “building” may be a moving of the discussion forward wherein new information is created or shared, or it may be an interrogation of earlier statements that is plausibly expected to lead to clarity such that further building is possible.  

Excluded in genuine dialogue is lying, making statements unrelated to previous contributions to the discussion, mere repetitions of previous contributions (unless used as part of an interrogation meant to allow further building), and tangential statements meant to change the topic.  (Changing the topic is permissible, but doing so means ending one conversation and starting another.)

My contention is simply that these moves that are excluded by genuine dialogue are an extensive part of contemporary conversation.  Putting the point differently, much of contemporary discussion is twaddle rather than genuine dialogue. (This is not an original point; it’s been made many times before throughout history; my favorite statement  about it is by Kierkegaard, in his The Present Age (CE*).)  If this is right, it’s hardly surprising that we have a paucity of civil discourse.  How can we expect civil discourse when people have lost the ability to engage in any real discourse?  When what passes for discourse is “you speak then I speak,” disliking what the faux interlocutor says will not result in honest interrogation or understanding, but hatred.

If you think I am being facetious, consider:

-Walking across a college campus, you might hear someone say “Was your summer fantastic?” Forget the response, what kind of question is this?  What if the person being asked merely had an OK summer?  

-You might here someone say “Its going to rain tomorrow because I looked at the forecast.”  Well…. no.

-Someone might ask a guest if they’d like a drink and receive this reply: “I’m going out to dinner after this.”  This likely should be prefaced with a “No,” but who can be sure?

None of that even touches the fact that some seem to have absolutely no commitment to telling the truth, the results of which is that genuine dialogue can’t progress.  We could, of course, simply look at the White House for examples, but more generally I admit to being flummoxed when faced when someone lies straight to my face—when I realize this is happening, I give up on genuine dialogue with that person.

If contemporary discussion is itself not genuine dialogue, it cannot be civil discourse.  If we care about civil discourse, then, we should work to encourage more genuine dialogue.  That is, we need to encourage people to listen to one another and actually respond rather than merely speak.  (This, by the way, is one reason many of us love university life: at a university, we frequently say “what do you mean by that?,” “can you explain?,” and even “how is that relevant to our discussion?”  We seek and promote genuine discussion all the time.)

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