From readers of this blog, I sometimes hear, “I don’t always agree with you, but I always find you worth reading.” That is one of my favorite compliments, because of, and not despite, the disagreement. It wouldn’t be that interesting, after all, to stick with what everyone agrees on. Learning comes from the conversation, which in turn often comes from the differences. Today, those differences abound, and Americans don’t seem to agree on much. Amid the contested facts of the recent election, for example, it seems as though the two sides are talking past each other. Believing that they have been systematically silenced by big technology companies, many conservatives are retreating to their own social media spaces, with sites like Parler and MeWe, as well as networks further to the right of Fox, like OANN and Newsmax. Liberals, for their part, are still stunned that the pollster-promised “Blue Wave” didn’t materialize, and 73 million Americans voted for a President they view as obviously dangerous and historically flawed.
In that setting, the question has come up of whether the two sides can even engage, and still have a reasonable conversation. The frustration, I get. It can feel like driving a nail with your forehead, particularly when the person you’re talking with seems to have their own set of personally-curated facts, and disagrees on the fundamentals of what would even count as evidence for or against an idea. In that situation — and I know it sounds trite — it is important to keep talking. Even as it doesn’t bring about instant or dramatic attitude change, the discourse is vital. I believe that for students and practitioners of persuasion, it is especially important. So my advice is,
Never pass up an opportunity to engage with someone who sees the world very differently from you.
Even if that person seems uninformed or ill-intentioned, go ahead and talk. Even if the discussion seems like parallel lines that never intersect, go ahead and welcome the conversation. Because even when it does nothing for them, it may do something for you. It may give you a little better understanding of someone else’s worldview, and that is never a bad thing for an advocate to have.
The importance of the conversation always reminds me of an excerpt from the philosopher of communication, Kenneth Burke, known as “The Unending Conversation.” Unfortunately, Kenneth Burke is not well known except by those of us who studied social science in graduate school, but the passage had a profound effect on me when I first read it as a student, capturing the arc of life and our professional history, and neatly highlighting our place in the conversation.
So I will just leave this here, with the soft suggestion that we keep talking:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late.
When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about.
In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before.
You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar.
Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent.
However, the discussion is interminable.
The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
– Kenneth Burke (1897-1993)
Image credit: 123rf.com