The Civilization of the Dialogue

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 It has been replaced by the loud voices of two or more advocates of differing points of view whose minds are closed like steel traps and who are simply concerned to have the listener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.

TV “Debates”

My name is Hugh and I did not watch the presidential debates on TV.  I must be honest: I did not plan to watch them because I did not expect to learn anything important from them. They are not designed to inform; they are entertainment staged for a TV audience. And I don’t find them terribly entertaining.

In such a TV event speeches are timed and each player is allowed a few minutes to speak and a few more to “rebut” the other — with an emcee carefully watching to make certain that neither goes over his allotted time. There will be no time for real rebuttal — an examination of assumptions, development of arguments with premises made explicit, counter-arguments (as opposed to charges and counter-charges, of which there usually are plenty). In a word, there is no intellectual discussion of the most important issues confronting American voters. Instead, there is a televised event in which two performers parade their stuff before the viewing audience which is known to have short attention spans with the goal of making the strongest impression. The “winner” is declared not on the grounds of which speaker made the most sense, but which “came off” the best, which one mentioned the most things that resonated loudest with the larger group of people.  It’s all about impressions in the Age of Entertainment. Like school and church these days, politics is show biz!

I am generalizing on the basis of past experience, but I am also developing a theme that Neil Postman argued in his provocative book Amusing Ourselves to Death in which he makes the case that TV marked the end of the Age of Exposition — which started to die with the invention of the telegraph in the mid-nineteenth century — and the full flowering of the Age of Entertainment. With the death of exposition we saw the gradual disappearance of the “sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively, and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.” Postman makes a strong case. Can you imagine one of today’s TV debaters pausing to think?

He asks us to consider the Lincoln-Douglass debates in 1858 in which men and women stood for seven hours in the hot Illinois sun and listened carefully to two men debate the serious topics of the day, incorporating into their speeches such devices as story, sarcasm, irony, paradox, elaborated metaphors, fine distinctions, and the exposure of contradictions. The audience listened carefully and picked up on the subtle nuances they were hearing. In a word, there was a true debate involving the meeting of two minds on complex topics of the day in which the audience was asked  (and able) to follow closely and critically for what seems today an impossible length of time.

Consider Douglas’s opening comments in one of the debates: “Ladies and Gentlemen: I appear before you today for the purpose of discussing the leading political topics which now agitate the public mind. By an arrangement between Mr. Lincoln and myself we are  present here today for the purpose of having a joint discussion, as the representatives of the two great political parties of the State and Union, upon the principles at issue between those parties, and this vast concourse of people shows the deep feeling which pervades the public mind in regard to the questions dividing us.” How many modern listeners would (or could) follow this comment to the end — much less listen closely for seven hours?

Bear in mind that neither Lincoln nor Douglas was running for president at that time. They were two men debating public the issues of the day. Today’s TV presidential debates offer a sharp contrast not only in style but in substance. Instead of ideas painstakingly developed we have thought-bytes, slogans and clichés (Yahoo News wondered in print how many “zingers” Romney would get off). As Ortega y Gasset noted when the Age of Entertainment was aborning, we have ideas but we have lost the power of “ideation,” the ability to develop an idea to its full expression. In staged TV debates we are not asked to engage our minds, we are asked how we feel. And the person who makes us feel good will “win” the debate — not the one who speaks the truth (whatever that might be) or explains fully and carefully what he or she plans to do in leading this nation for the next four years. Because this is 2012, the Age of Entertainment, and the one who makes most of us feel good will eventually be elected President of this country.

I will of course vote. There are important issues at stake, including at least one possible appointment to the Supreme Court and the matter of taking steps to save of our planet. But my vote will be cast on the basis of what the candidate has done in the past and what I have reason to believe he will do in the future — as best I can tell. I have learned that what politicians say on TV is nothing more than a political commercial: it’s designed to sell the product.

Weighing Evidence

A most interesting article has come to light about the unwillingness (inability) of persons like you and me to weigh evidence fairly if it touches on an issue we feel strongly about. In fact recent studies showed that a balanced perspective presented to people who have strong feelings about such things as capital punishment simply made them cling all the more strongly to their original point of view. Consider the following two paragraphs that address the question of whether presenting a balanced argument to people who are deeply committed to a particular point of view will help them change their minds:

The remedy for easing such polarization, here and abroad, may seem straightforward: provide balanced information to people of all sides. Surely, we might speculate, such information will correct falsehoods and promote mutual understanding. This, of course, has been a hope of countless dedicated journalists and public officials.

Unfortunately, evidence suggests that balanced presentations — in which competing arguments or positions are laid out side by side — may not help. At least when people begin with firmly held convictions, such an approach is likely to increase polarization rather than reduce it.

This is disturbing. What it amounts to is “don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up!” And I gather we all succumb to this intransigent position on most issues we hold dear.

What we do, apparently, is weigh the evidence that supports our own conviction more heavily than we do conflicting evidence — which we tend to dismiss. So much for John Stuart Mill’s notion that an intelligent person will attempt to see both sides of an issue before making up his or her mind. If we already lean in one direction or the other on an issue (and who does not?) we will simply find the evidence that supports our point of view compelling and the evidence on the other side weak and unconvincing — even if an outside observer might insist that what we regard as the weaker evidence is in fact the stronger.

As a person who spent his life dedicated to trying to help young people gain possession of their own minds, to become thinking human beings rather than performing robots, this article is  disturbing. But please note that my deeply held conviction that people can learn to be reasonable is being shaken by an argument I am not comfortable with — and yet I see the strength of that argument in spite of the fact that it calls into question everything I have taught for nearly 50 years. Isn’t this in itself an argument against the conclusions of the study examined in the piece for the New YorkTimes? An interesting paradox!

In any event, the article goes on to tell us that the only way we can really change a person’s mind is to have someone they respect — say someone they identify closely with or someone whose opinions they have always revered — evidence a radical alteration of opinion. If, for example, I revere George Will and read that he has decided that the Republican party no longer stands for the ideals and values that he holds close to his heart, that he has decided to become a Democrat and vote for Obama — if, I say, I read that this has happened, then I am likely to change my mind as well. I was always told that this was an appeal to authority and that it is a fallacious way to reason. But apparently it works. This would mean, if it is true, that reason is a slave to the passions, as David Hume told us more than a hundred years ago. And he had no psychological tests to revert to. He just found it to be the case.

But then there’s that nagging factoid hanging out there: I find the study summarized in the above article convincing even though I also find the conclusions of the research cited in conflict with my most deeply held beliefs. I am not aware of anyone I admire who has changed his mind about this question, yet I find myself increasingly inclined toward a disturbing point of view. That seems to make the conclusions of this study a bit less disturbing.