The Great Divide

When did arguing become synonymous with fighting? Why do we clam up or blow our tops at the first sign of disagreement? Have we lost our ability to talk reasonably across a divide? Stephen Miller, author of Conversation: A History of a Declining Art (Yale University Press, 2006), points his finger at a culture that lauds boisterous opinion over measured reflection, keeps quiet for fear of appearing to be judgmental, and takes daily refuge in the anonymous online world. As we approach the holiday season and its inevitable dinner-table encounters with different-minded relatives, Utne Reader rang up one of conversation’s most vociferous enthusiasts to chat about how we lost our gift of gab and how to get it back.

In your book, you describe the golden age of conversation, an 18th-century culture of articulate, intelligent exchange that’s a long shot from how we communicate today. In a modern context, what would ideal conversation be like?

This is somewhat simplistic, but it’s a good start: The best conversations are playful. They go different places; people are throwing out ideas, and no one is pronouncing on things. They should be a bit like a game or a sport. Conversation should be enjoyable in its own right. It’s not something you learn from, like how to get rich or lose weight or whatever. It has intrinsic rewards.

Today we have this terrible war, and people sometimes think that it’s irresponsible to be playful, that they have to pronounce, they have to be earnest. Well, you can’t live that way.

How can a disagreement be playful?

Disagreement has to be good-humored. The alternative is it gets ugly, and that’s unfortunate. Quite often people don’t discuss anything because they’re afraid of offending–or if they do discuss something, they’re screaming.

I have a bunch of friends I’ve met through tennis, and two times a week, after we play, we sit down and have coffee. We talk about politics and religion. We have people all over the political spectrum, and we criticize each other mercilessly. But it’s all in good spirit; we say things like, “That’s a load of crap, Joe!”

Sounds like a pretty unusual group of friends. Why aren’t more people comfortable having a vigorous give-and-take discussion?

People feel the need to be authentic, so they approach any kind of interaction with others as “Here’s my opinion, take it or leave it.”

In recent years some people’s political anger has gotten so strong, fed by a daily dose of their favorite blogs, that they can’t even entertain other points of view. I have a very conservative cousin who feeds me stuff he’s reading on the Internet about how the war in Iraq is going well. I think that’s crazy. I’d love to discuss it with him, but he just rules out anyone who disagrees with him. It’s everyone; I have friends on the far left who demonize all Republicans.

So: I’m talking to somebody with whom I disagree. Where do I start?

You do have to decide if the person is reasonable. If you’re at a dinner party and someone says, “Hey, you know, that Stalin was a great guy,” that’s beyond the pale. If someone says, “God speaks to me,” that’s beyond the pale too. There’s no point. It has to be someone roughly within a large circle. The problem,
of course, is that people draw their circles too narrowly.

It isn’t easy to have conversations with people about difficult subjects, especially about politics–that’s the hardest subject. If you don’t fit a certain list or category, or if you say something out of the ordinary, people just shut down.

I live in a 99 percent liberal environment, but I voted for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. When I mentioned that at a dinner party–and these are good friends!–instead of anybody asking me why, they just changed the subject. You’d think they’d at least be curious: He looks normal. He talks; he speaks; he reads books; he goes to the ballet; he likes opera–how could he vote for Ronald Reagan?

Is it enough if I’m playful and curious? Or do I have to give, say, my crazy uncle a heads-up, set up some more formal rules?

There have to be ground rules or it’s not going to work. No personal attacks. In England, if someone says something you think is foolish, you say, “That’s rubbish.” You’re not attacking the person, you’re attacking the idea.

That still seems confrontational to me.

In the United States, people fail to see the distinction between attacking an idea and attacking a person, and they tend to be more offended. But if I say, “I think we can win this Iraq war,” and you say, “That’s a stupid idea,” that’s different than if you say, “That’s just because you’re a crazy right-winger.”

It’s so easy not to deal with an actual idea and instead just say, “Oh, you’re repressed, you’re a Marxist, you’re a whatever.” Don’t make it personal. There has to be restraint for conversation to succeed.

And what good comes from making the effort?

We have a tendency to become intellectually complacent, to get in a rut, so to speak. You need to meet people who will jar you, who will question your ideas. It’s difficult, but it’s also very difficult to change intellectually.

Why take time just to vent an opinion? In real conversation, you get a range of opinions, and that’s fun and exciting. Think about spending a good time with a bunch of friends: You don’t remember exactly what you said, but it’s exhilarating.

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