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Thursday, 13 January 2022

Dialogue Is Dead. So Now What?

Dialogue is dead

In the history of the planet, there has never been a time which even compares with the circumstances, technologies and possibilities for communication and dialogue which are currently available to us.  Overwhelmed by this abundance, we face the opposite of what we might have expected:  dialogue is dead.  




Algorithms and polarization

One point of agreement these days is that we are living in an era of widespread disagreement and polarization.  Computer algorithms exacerbate polarization by feeding our prejudices and cognitive biases with a steady diet of whatever we already like and believe.  The problem isn't that people disagree but that populations at opposing poles, fed with a constant diet of affirmation, have become impenetrable to contrary ideas.  Dialogue has become impossible.  We are bombarded with tweets and images and conspiracies reaffirming what we think we know, making us ever more convinced that we've got it right and of the wrongheadedness of anyone who would dare to think otherwise. 



The History of dialogue

For the last 3000 years or so, the intellectual and social development of Homo Sapiens has been presumed to be based on dialogue.  In Plato's Republic, we read Socrates' dialogue exchanges with lesser lights--question and answer, question and answer--leading us eventually to some consensus, insight, or enlightenment if not final, unanimous agreement. 

Can there be democracy without dialogue?

From the Assembly of the Greek polis to the Roman Senate to the British House of Commons and their numerous variations, dialogue and, more formally, debate were the presumed underpinnings of the system.  Dictatorship is government without dialogue.  Mob rule is dictatorship with a lower IQ. The 2020 US presidential debates were much decried as they quickly devolved into ramshackle exchanges of jibes and slurs.  They were the reductio ad absurdum of the incapacity of politicians to engage in an earnest exchange of ideas.  

I'm an ENTP

My guru once told me I was an ENTP.  Which sounded great, except that I didn't know what ENTP meant.  What I took away from my guru's elaborate description of personality types was "When I think I'm right; I think I'm right."  Isn't everyone an ENTP?  Apparently, my reaction proves I am definitely an ENTP.  I want to be challenged but that would require someone, like me, who is eager to debate vigorously and logically.  

There's a rule somewhere that if you don't get a joke, it's probably about you.  I don't remember that I ever said this, but I have definitely thought it:  


Debate inside academia

Over and over again, at academic conferences, I have heard the claim that the most dire of problems, from racism to genocide to misogyny, could be solved with an open discussion of the contingencies, a fulsome discussion, a serious debate, a conversation.   I've even used this gambit myself.  Yet, inside academia, if ever a debate becomes energetic, someone will sense the imminence of an ad hominem retort and propose that most abhorrent of all compromises:  "Let's agree to disagree." While the dogma of prevailing "isms" reigns supreme in academia, even diffident discussions of fine-tuning and specifics risk being condemned as confrontational, conflictual, or heretical.

"Free Speech" and the world turned upside down

Reading the headline that "Trump threatens to cut funding for colleges 'hostile to free speech,'" it seemed to me that the world had been turned upside down.  How is it possible that universities, the crucibles of free speech, were being accused of resisting exactly what "universities" are supposed to stand for:  universality?   The origin of the word "university" is from the Latin for "whole, entire." We need to distinguish between free speech and hate speech, but the possibility of vigorous debate needs to be preserved somewhere.

Woke and cancel culture

I have wondered aloud how "woke," an Ebonic term for being conscious of social injustice, has become derogatory--a right-wing locution to mock precious claims of discrimination and racism and anything that might be called politically correct. The devolution of the word is a good example of how even vocabulary is co-opted by polarized extremes, and language, the necessary ground for consensus-building, compromise and dialogue, has become the problem rather than the solution.

I have defended "cancel culture"--though the expression has, with overuse and misuse, become meaningless--on the basis of a need to distinguish between free speech and privileged speech. "Cancel culture" hits the news and becomes clickbait when someone wants something or someone to be canceled and that cancellation is likely to irritate, outrage or befuddle a significant audience.  The true malaise is that "cancel culture" is evidence of disbelief in dialogue.  It is evidence of an absence of the trust necessary for dialogue to happen. 

So now what? 

"Actions speak louder than words."  "Might is right."  Is this what we are left with?   

 

 

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