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Is conversation dead?

Essay | 9 minute read
There is nothing more stimulating - or mind-expanding, than a passionate discussion. So why aren't we having it any more, asks one writer

In 1996, Raymond Carver, wrote, ‘There is no God, and conversation is a dying art.’ The quote features in his collected poems, All of Us, that among many things, explores loneliness and isolation. I look at society today, and can’t help think we’re somehow there, in that lonely room without company. And what’s depressing is that it seems to be by choice.

I’m not saying that we are all, literally, trapped in a physical space we can’t escape. It’s our thinking to which I’m referring. We seem increasingly isolated from each other, and each other’s minds, and living in this socially disjointed and uninspired way may not only be having an impact of our own sense of self worth, but also our understanding of what it is to be human.

Carver’s quote reaches right into, and exposes, this major fault in the human condition, although I don’t think it’s intrinsic within us. But it is as if we are slowly devolving, spiralling ever deeper into an echo-chamber of thoughts and ideals, where only our reflections (or views very much like our own) are consulted. Perhaps our desire for this closeted, self-interested way of living was sparked by the enlightenment, unshackled from God, yet in our release, we now seem lost at sea. Whatever the reason, many of us seem to have a genuine disconnection with our internal lives. One that is leaving us flat, and in many ways, lacking in any incentive to grow.

Let’s go back a step, and consider how Carver’s absent God, and the death of verbal interaction, correlate. Whether you’re religious or not, the word ‘God’ alludes to something bigger – something ‘other’, with a depth and a wisdom that exists externally, but that also resonates and can influence what lies within. Conversation is an exchange of ideas, concepts, feelings and so on, and requires us to embrace the quiet of the mind, so we can listen and reflect. To my mind at least, these are very similar activities. Both ask us to look out, and not only this, but be open to external influence, and ruminate over its affects and/or consequences.

Photo by Rod Long/Unsplash

In exploring the notion that conversation is dying, I wonder if our aspiration to look outwardly for things that are powerful – or strange, or new – is fading.  There is also the suggestion that there can be no ‘God’, or no ‘other’ to explore in the mind, because our desire to discover things that genuinely stagger or astonish us – things that could potentially have a deep affect on us – is no longer a priority.

I am reminded of our early ancestors who first looked up at the stars. Did they know what the stars were? Did they think they owned them, or have any definitive, concrete answers for the meaning of their own lives, in relation to this vast expanse of sky? My thinking is no, not back then, and that this eagerness; firstly, to gaze and wonder, and secondly, to do so from a humble place of knowing very little, has somehow escaped us.

We may have advanced enormously in scientific research and discovery, and think, that in 2019, we have every moral human code fixed and in place. But this doesn’t mean we are in the habit of sitting back and internalising our gaze. Though we are actually, constantly in a state of change, and often refer to ‘moving forwards’, we are very stuck. Almost solidly rooted in a place of ‘I’, only, which is suffocating. And in an era of such political and humanitarian unrest, one that could potentially be an era of vast human development, we need to re-shift our focus.

Jonathan Pie, the fictitious news-reporter created by the actor, Tom Walker, has drawn attention to this. Whether he meant to or not, his recent lambasting of the left for shutting down anything they, or anyone else, might consider offensive, has touched on a deeper issue. Something worrying about the human condition or rather its demise. Pie refers largely to the political consequences of denying the rights of another’s opinion, blaming the rising of Trump and Brexit on preachy arrogance of this kind, I agree with him and more troubling is that he suggests that there is no desire to engage with other points of view. That we don’t actually want to consider ourselves in relation to anything different to us at all.

This is an important message, one that I think both Pie and Carver are driving towards. Both, for me at least, are calling urgently for us to reconnect with a truly fundamental part of our selves. One that is in danger of severe neglect. You might disagree, but look around you. When you are on the bus, who do you talk to? When you’re in your living room at home, how often have you looked up to see your loved one’s faces lit by the screens on their phones or laptops, instead of the delight of in-depth conversation?

This isn’t about the ruins of technology (though I am sure social media will have affected us somehow with its celebration of the ego and falsified sense of human connection) but about our identity. The fibre of our beings, that is, our moral, intellectual, and spiritual growth, is discovered when we connect with and establish our values. And we can’t achieve this without having anything to measure it against or feel a desire to engage in activity that gets us measuring. We aren’t born knowing exactly who we are. We are guided towards it through experience, wide-eyed, and open. No amount of #mondaymotivation quotes, or pictures of serene looking panda bears, will achieve that. Rather, it’s the challenge of another thought or set of principles through conversation that gets us there.

There is nothing more stimulating, or more validating, than engaged, passionate conversation. I have been guilty of hearing something I disagree with, and then, instead of challenging it head-on, posting a passive-aggressive Facebook rant later on instead. It’s easier to do this, of course. There’s zero chance of any kind of retort from the original source, and you’re likely to be celebrated for your opinion with a ‘like’ or comment. But this achieves nothing other than a fleeting moment of oblique satisfaction, and it seems more fruitful – and more progressive, actually — to engage with the moment itself. Be physically present, and receptive to the consequences of making your voice heard, and draw on that complex, beautiful element of human nature we should always celebrate: our thinking mind.

Conversation is an art form, and marvellously, we all have the capacity to create it. It requires a deep connection with language, our finest tool, as is our unique ability to wield it. And when we engage in conversation, we not only acknowledge the value in our right to be heard against another voice, but embrace the opportunity to demonstrate the best of what we are. There are so many ugly shades to the human condition. We are dogmatically and almost pathologically annihilating the world around us and each other. But when we are quiet, listen, and show respect for another person, we are simultaneously nurturing, and utilising a deeply balanced part of ourselves, a balance that is much needed. We are also, quite simply, keeping a truly valuable, dare I say, almost virtuous element of the human condition alive.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi/Unsplash

It is interesting that we have never been so forward-thinking, and yet never seemed so backwards too. And our general attitude to social interaction, at present at least, is a shining of example of this paradox. We are desperate to connect but can only do it at face value or through the protective layer of a laptop screen. Many of us believe in human rights and equality, yet we are often unwilling to absorb other points of view. Denying ourselves the right to do this, on any subject and in any arena, is totally self-destructive. And social crisis aside, why refuse the delicious opportunity to be stimulated, or inspired, or outraged? How better do we really enjoy ourselves?

There is also the consideration that without conversation, how can we as a society actually evolve. How do we form opinions or moral ethics without open-minded, uninhibited, even angry, debate? More importantly, how do we effectively engage with others on serious issues such as gender politics, feminism, sexism, or race? How do we change the world?

In Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s classic on Voltaire, Friends of Voltaire, there is the quote mis-ascribed to the French philosopher himself: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ This refers to human tolerance and the clarity of mind to exercise it at all times. It is an important message in itself. It also brings me to a second point: yes, we all have the right to speak our minds but we also have the right to speak with each other, too. It is almost considered offensive (in city life I find, especially) to spontaneously start talking to someone. Perhaps we have forgotten how to do it, and if we have, we need to get re-acquainted. Rekindle our love for proper, social interaction and combined with this of course our love of spoken language and what happens in its exchange.

Good discussion isn’t really good at all without a smidgen of conflict; or a shedload … without diversity in all its provocative complexity, we have nothing

Take Brexit as an example; the result of the referendum exposed many things, the most prevalent being that many have not felt heard. It is natural to want to point the finger of blame at the political powers who we feel are not listening, but it is not only them who have turned away. It is us too. I was flabbergasted when the result came in on 23 June 2016. How naïve of me! During the entire campaign, I had only listened with, and spoken to, remain voters. I ignored the dribble of pro-remain Facebook posts, made up of what I saw as an entirely 2D community. Many others were like me in not engaging with the reality of what was happening, and what was being said, other than that around our own enclosed circles of conversations. Our eyes weren’t open so we remained unreceptive to, and isolated from, conversations that absolutely needed to happen; exchanges of ideals that needed to take place.

I am not saying that had we been better conversationalists we might have prevented Brexit. This is really just one example of how our lack of investment and interest in conversation is failing us, especially beyond those who appease or agree with us, with those who don’t. Good discussion isn’t really good at all without a smidgen of conflict; or a shedload. And while we may not really like each other sometimes or want to tolerate other opinions or views, without this diversity in all its provocative complexity, we have nothing. Just ourselves and our screens and self-worship. And as Carver’s poem tells us, this is really quite a lonely place to be.

We need to fill up the room again and reflect on other values, especially in relation to our own. Because ultimately, this is the most enlightening quality we have. It allows us to be open. To broaden our intellectual and emotional horizons. It makes us the philosopher, the fair contender, the diplomat, the peace-maker. It grounds us, our unique individual selves, in the real, living and breathing world. Connecting us with who we are, unafraid to explore new possibilities – and the stars.

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