Talking Past Each Other

Modernity brought fascinating changes to our everyday lives. Of the innumerable changes, one that comes to mind frequently is the accessibility and volume of knowledge. No longer does one have to sit tortured, unsure of the answer to a problem. In years past, a gap in knowledge might be fixed by a trip to the local library, or if you were lucky, by thumbing through one of several volumes of your own Encyclopedia Britannica, perhaps in the comfort of your own wood-paneled den.

The idea of not knowing the answer to a problem is nearly quaint in this day and age. Not sure about the particulars of a certain historical event? Google has the answers. Who were the key figures in the Selma march? Wikipedia should have an article.

Unprecedented access to information, coupled with the constant exposure to news media, has produced negative consequences. Now everyone can be an expert.

No. Expertise nor its perceived presence is not my focus. I want to discuss another byproduct of all this knowledge: argument.

Americans are constantly arguing with each other. This isn’t really anything new, but as political opinions grow increasingly divided and social media (and blogs) provide a voice for everyone, the noise is reaching a fever pitch.

What I’ve noticed in most arguments, typically political or religious, is that each side will state his or her opinion, and provide x, y, and z as to why that position is correct. Well, let’s be honest. In the best of circumstances it is that. More often than not, it simply a “You just need to believe this” religious kind of argument or the usual political manifesto of “If we allow X to happen, what’s to stop Y?!”

We have become so determined to prove that the other side is hypocritical; so bent on showing why problem X persists, that we have forgotten to ask each other “How do you define that term?” For the longest time in political discourse, the best example was “the middle class.” In theological debates or religious studies, terms to be defined first are “salvation,” “sin,” or even “forgery.” Defining the term or concept at the heart of a debate should be the first step, not the forgotten one.

If we took the time to define a term or concept, I am willing to bet that the argument would completely shift. In fact, I am willing to bet that it would become a more meaningful discussion; elevated above the simplistic “you’re right, I’m wrong.” A saying that I have taken to heart in the past few years is “Small minds discuss people. Average minds discuss events. Great minds discuss ideas.” Yes, there is plenty wrong with this statement, but at its heart is a potent truth. Great minds do discuss ideas. Think of this example. Let’s say a conservative and liberal are arguing about racism. Pick any number of incidents in which race has come up. It will apply. The liberal may something like “Racism was the driving factor in that event,” whereas the conservative will say, “Racism and/or racists had nothing to do with it!”

What has been accomplished in this exchange? Nothing. Neither side will be persuaded. Neither side will gain any new insights. Both sides will likely walk away thinking the other side is somewhere between incredibly ignorant or horrifyingly evil.

Now take that same argument and ask this important question: “How do you define racism? Or, what does racism mean to you?” This steers the conversation in a different direction. Racism for some simply means a person of one skin color hating a person of a different skin color. Another way to understand it is deeply embedded biases within social structures and the very fabric of society that prevent African Americans from obtaining levels of equality enjoyed by white people. The drastic difference in understanding can only mean that the two people in this scenario will never see eye-to-eye. Their understanding of racism is so fundamentally different, that they will merely talk past each other.

In my own life, I need this reminder. I need to remember that the more productive way to approach a disagreement is to ask if we are even speaking the same language. I encourage you to do the same in your day-to-day interactions and, God forbid, in social media bickering.

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