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Cure for divisiveness is learning how to talk

Staff February 8, 2012 Opinion No Comments

People like to talk.
It’s nearly impossible to find a public space, especially on campus, that is completely void of voices. It seems to be in human nature to talk to one another—it doesn’t matter to whom, or about what; we just want conversation.
Conversation is a necessity. It satiates our desire for social interaction, provides a medium for the exchange of ideas and allows us to purge from our hearts and minds the things that bear the greatest weight on us as individuals.
This is why we talk. And it’s good we make this a regular practice, because if we didn’t, we’d more than likely bottle up our thoughts and emotions and send the world into a state of perpetual silence.
Lately, however, it seems we’ve forgotten how to talk.
My experience is that the majority of conversations that involve debate, even among even the most respectful and well-meaning parties, devolve to intensely polarized shouting matches if any difference of opinion exists. This is especially relevant at Ohio Wesleyan—whether it’s in a club meeting discussing broad philosophical topics or in the Smith Hall lounge over who gets control of the TV, participants in an argument can enter as friends and exit as bitter enemies.
This pattern is by no means a positive one. Conversation is supposed to make human life easier and foster the growth of community, not further isolate us from one another. Conversation should allow new, different ideas to flourish, not eradicate them. Conversation should create solutions, not more problems.
The question, then, becomes: how do we fix this?
How do we, as scholars, as friends, as members of society, put an end to the acrimony created by simply talking to each other?
The answer is a simple seven-letter word: respect.
The overall concept of respect is certainly helpful in creating an environment conducive to better conversations, but the “respect” I’m referring to is an acronym developed by Rev. Eric H.F. Law in his “Guidelines for Respectful Communication.” Each letter in the word stands for a technique that can be implemented to make conversation more productive and respectful for all involved.
Each part of the acronym is important to meet this end, but for me, two stand out especially. One is the first E of “respect,” which stands for “use empathetic listening.”
Empathy is a difficult thing to grasp—it is often hard to understand another person’s point of view simply because we cannot be that person, and cannot fully see where their thoughts and feelings come from.
This obstacle, however, does not make it any less crucial to respectful conversation. A lack of empathy and careful thought about different perspectives results in personal attacks deeply rooted in ignorance. Having empathy doesn’t mean knowing every aspect of someone’s perspective (as that would be impossible), but it does imply making connections with others based on the one trait we all share—being human.
The human experience is an incredibly unique and diverse one, but all people are intrinsically connected in sharing it. As Rev. Law notes, society arbitrarily divides people into different categories—races, genders, political identifications, sexual orientations, etc.—but our differences should not negate our grand similarity.
This, then, leads into what I see as the other most significant letter of respect—T, which stands for, “trust ambiguity, because we are not here to debate who is right or wrong.”
According to Rev. Law, the aforementioned categories society separates us into—what he refers to as “-isms” (i.e. racism, sexism, ageism, classism, and ablism)—often lead to debate among their members. Conversations often lose their focus, he says, when participants from different backgrounds turn against each other and argue over which of their respective groups has experienced more oppression or pain. If all these prejudices and labels were removed, then, those arguments would become irrelevant, and the original focus of the conversation could be restored.
For me, respecting ambiguity is also important with regard to the topic of the conversation. In my experience many talks aiming to address broad, abstract issues often get too caught up in the use of hypothetical situations to prove a point or achieve a specific solution. This causes the focus of the conversation to often shift to determining whether or not a hypothetical situation is likely to happen or whether it is fitting to the broader topic being discussed.
This is where respecting ambiguity can play an integral role. Abstract problems and questions often don’t have any answers or solutions; that is why they have remained abstract. Acknowledging this lack of actuality can sometimes be confounding, but no less confounding than a futile pursuit of making them concrete.
I’m glad people like to talk. Conversation can be an incredibly powerful tool in strengthening our common human bond. I just think we need to remember that bond, and remember how to talk to each other with respect.

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