We Open Our Mouths: And Therein Lies the Problem

In the aftermath of the tragedy in Tucson, a lot has been made about the lack of civility in our social and political discourse.  The obvious concern is that the discourse can become so destructive that it leads to physical violence.

Yet, what happens when the communication doesn’t produce actual violence?  Should we  assail language that is incendiary only when it leads to bodily harm?  I think most people would agree that language can be hurtful even if a person is not injured. But if language – and more importantly conflict – can be injurious without inflicting harm, why does society tend to overlook incivility in public discourse when it fails to rise to an egregious level?

Perhaps the issue is how we view discourse in general.  When we enter into conversations, what is our motivation?  Is our objective to “win” a debate or to promote greater understanding between people? The fundamental issue is how to reconfigure discourse in America, especially as we encounter growing social problems and try to find our rightful place within the global community.

From an anecdotal standpoint, our cultural pedagogy teaches us to view conversation from an individualist standpoint.  Within that framework, the point of conversation is to promote the individual’s interest at the expense of the interpersonal dynamic.

In simpler terms, the focus is on being “right” or “getting one’s point across.”   Given this construct, conversation can become a “sport;” it feels combative and competitive.  And as a result, no one listens, and the conversations become heated and less congenial.

Some would argue that this dynamic is a result of a Eurocentric mindset that devalues the community.  Others point to an increasingly litigious society where everyone is quick to use legalese (e.g. “I’ll sue you” or “I have the right to (fill in the blank)”) or emulate stereotypical attorney behavior to express themselves more forcefully. When even a small percentage of people take on this mindset, the conversation necessarily shifts and becomes more antagonistic because the legal profession, by its very nature, is adversarial.

In the last thirty years, there has also been considerable influence from popular culture.  Whereas the older generations were typically reserved and restrained in their posturing, younger generations are much more unabashed about their feelings.  This phenomena of “Keeping it Real” – which is equal parts generational, political, and entertainment fodder  – has sharpened discourse and given it an edge that it would not otherwise have. And while “direct” conversation has it benefits (I would argue that the “keeping it real” phenomena has given social minorities a safe way to be politically subversive in an oppressive regime), it doesn’t always foster empathetic or non-violent communication.

So, given these realities, what should we do as a society?  The first thing that we have to do is to transform the nature of conversation.   In conversations where there are multiple ideas or perspectives, participants typically feel obligated to debate and rationalize their position.  Entering conversation from a defensive position limits the amount of sharing and vulnerability that occurs, which is critical for fostering high-level inter-personal communication.  Instead, we should make greater use of “dialogue,” which invites an even and non-judgmental exchange of ideas.  Practically speaking, mastering “dialogue” helps people more successfully navigate a heterogeneous society.

Secondly, we have to recognize the value in honoring different beliefs and perspectives.  No one has a monopoly on truth or clairvoyance.  Every conversation presents an opportunity for greater learning and observation.  Dialogue can act as a teaching tool, and bridge perception-gaps on critical topics.

Finally, we should recognize that disagreement doesn’t make us “enemies.”  All of us are multi-dimensional beings, with many different viewpoints and opinions. Even if we disagree on one topic, chances are that we will find some commonality on a different topic. Using a dialogue process preserves relationships that may be vital to coalition-building and resolving other issues in the future.

Undoubtedly, social and political issues can make any number of people emotional, charged, and aggressive.  However, when we communicate our feelings, we are not just communicating the idea itself; the way we communicate also signals a higher idea about how we view our world, our neighbors, our community, and ourselves.   When we engage in respectful dialogue, we are showing basic respect for humanity and a civilized order.

Dialogue, which is the foundation for conflict resolution, is not designed to change opinions, but to change the dynamic. If we show greater decorum in our discourse, we won’t have to worry about increasing levels in violence, nor will we be stirring the brew that makes such violence possible.