This post is about conversation (or the lack of it): the gentle art of conversation in which folks actually listen to one another and, attempting to keep an open mind, seek to rethink issues no matter how deeply they feel about them. In a word, it is about the “civilization of the dialogue,” a phrase that arose from a discussion at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California in 1968 focusing on the place of civil discourse in a democracy, a place that everyone involved agreed is central. Of chief interest in that discussion was the publication of several papers — one of which was written by a Senior Fellow, John Wilkinson, a man of considerable sagacity, a wordsmith, and master of the art of dialogue himself. The Center was known for its discussions of public issues, many of them heated, but all deserving of serious attention and almost always productive of insights into the condition of the nation at that time.
It is no secret that the art of conversation has been lost. It has been replaced by the loud voices of two or more advocates of differing points of view whose minds are closed like steel traps and who are simply concerned to have the listener shut up and agree. I use the term “listener” loosely, since the art of listening has been lost as well. Assuredly, television is one of the main causes of this condition, since it features, day in and day out, the shouting and interrupting voices of “talking heads” who hold forth on issues they may or may not know anything about, from sports to politics to feminine hygiene. I would also fault the lecture system in our colleges and universities which fail to instill what Walter Lippmann referred to as “vital intellectual habits” — such as “the ability to follow an argument, grasp the point of view of another, expand the boundaries of understanding, debate the alternatives that might be pursued” — all essential elements of the civilization of the dialogue. College classes must be small enough to encourage all to participate, not just the lecturer.
And one must also consider the eradication of the Fairness Doctrine during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, a policy passed in 1949 that was designed to guarantee equal time to both sides of complex (usually political) issues in the public media. With the elimination of this Doctrine the public path was clear for louder and less civil voices in the expression of conflicting points of view. Indeed, there no longer needed to be opposing points of view at all: television producers and newspaper editors could simply present one side of an issue and do so again and again — witness Fox “News.” Preaching to the choir replaced genuine dialogue and any effort to grasp both sides of complex issues. But even before the Fairness Doctrine bit the dust, there were clear signs that the art of conversation, the civilization of the dialogue, was in serious trouble — as was our democratic system. To quote John Wilkinson’s occasional paper printed in the Center Magazine in December 1968:
“The American republic is running on the momentum given it by a galaxy of political virtuosos nearly two centuries ago. It is vain to rail against any one thing or any one group of persons as the cause of our loss of political momentum.. . . We need not believe that there has been some conspiracy. It is tempting but not necessary to suppose that our oligarchs meet secretly, swearing to do everything in their power to harm the people. The effect is the same as if they had. If democracy is the civilization of the dialogue; if, as Scott Buchanan held, ‘persuasion is the life of politics’; if, as Robert Hutchins has written, ‘With an educational system that does not educate and a system of mass communications that does not communicate, we have become incapable of the discussion of which political issues are determined,’ then it is easy to see why the self-styled political elite must be a cacistocracy when not a single one of them could bring forth a clear and distinct idea if he had lived as long and written as much as Varro himself.”
Aside from the fact that I had to look up the word “cacistocracy” to discover it meant rule by the worst and most ignorant elements, I found this passage particularly thought-provoking. Wilkinson is very concerned that the life is going out of our political body because conversation has forsaken us, we have lost the ability to express ourselves clearly, and very few of us are willing to listen to what the other has to say. And this “we,” of course, includes our so-called “leaders.” Indeed, in his paper Wilkinson notes that before coming to the Center he had taught at six different universities (all of them so-called “prestige” universities). During that time he tested the vocabularies of his students and found to his dismay that
“More than ninety percent of the students proved, as Freshmen, to have a usable, active vocabulary of about eight hundred words. They could passively understand a further five hundred words in something vaguely resembling their proper meaning. Another fifteen hundred or so words lay in such a penumbra of understanding or misunderstanding that more could hardly be averred than that they remembered having heard them before. Beyond that, Stygian darkness.”
This was before texting and the onslaught of electronic toys, and is sobering indeed — especially in light of the fact that Panbanisha, the chimpanzee, is said to have a vocabulary of 3000 words! But in any case, whether or not one is in sympathy with Wilkinson, or believes that his vocabulary tests prove much outside those six institutions, I can attest that in my more than forty years of teaching at the college level my students increasingly exhibited the same inability to grasp meanings and write and speak clearly that was the case with Wilkinson’s students. They were “verbally challenged” and, as a consequence (since we think in words), their thoughts were frequently jumbled and incoherent. Thus we have in our time not only the reduction of genuine dialogue to a shouting match where the goal is simply to speak louder than one another, but we also have growing numbers of people who cannot express themselves coherently even if they have something important to say. And this in a democracy where dialogue is central to its survival.