The Conversable World: Finding a Compass in Post-9/11 Times

Conversation: its meaning and discontents

The war on terror is the dominant narrative of our time. It frames the world into “us against them”. It easily permits religion or ethnicity to be used as the distinguishing mark of one’s enemy. Dividing the world this way, us versus them, each perceiving the other as both an enemy and an inferior, shreds the tapestry of the conversable and habitable cosmopolitan world. It tears apart the ideal of a common humanity.

It canalizes immense human energy into channels of aggression and violence towards the feared other. It closes the door on learning and critical self-reflection. The feared other cannot be heard (or is simply crushed).

Conversation is central to the learning dynamics of a participatory society. When we separate ourselves from the other, or divide the world into friends and enemies, conversation is stopped dead in its tracks. All learning shudders to a grinding halt like a train forced to stop for an emergency.

It is imperative, then, for us to understand as well and as deeply as we can what conditions (both institutional and personal) nurture the spiritual movement from self-centred, first-person preoccupations to adopting the position of the third-person other who raises questions and themes for conversation.

We will track the historical trajectory of the art of conversation and follow this with setting out core features of good conversation.

In his compelling book, Conversation: a History of a Declining Art (2006), Stephen Miller believes that good conversations do not “just happen.” He thinks that Americans, in particular, are not “preoccupied with the quality of their conversation” (p. xi). In fact, Miller scans the conversational landscape and finds much to be dispirited about. We seem to be living, he thinks, in the age of the screed, the rant, the diatribe. Talk shows either promote aggressive in-your-face talk, or, like Donahue or Oprah, encourage venting and sharing of opinions, all taken as equally valid.

Some right-leaning news broadcasters like Fox foster the screeching commentator. Academics, for their part, are taught to deliver monologues. Even an admirable Centre for Dialogue such as Simon Fraser University’s in downtown Vancouver convenes “dialogues,” which can turn out to be little more than individuals simply giving an opinion with little connection to anything anyone else has spoken.

We cannot take good conversations for granted. David Hume (1711-1776) said that “Freedom is necessary for conversation, but conversation will not flourish simply because there is freedom. Without a ‘polite’ citizenry, conversation will suffer” (as cited, S. Miller, Conversation: a history of a declining art [2006], p. 24).

It also opens up worlds of marvellous scholarship of the historical origins of the conversable world. Benedetta Crevari’s fine scholarly study of the conversational style of the French nobility in the seventeenth century, The Age of Conversation (2005), reveals that the nobility gradually learned in their salons to adopt a civilized and outwardly respectful attitude to their conversation partners. They could not be vulgar or rough, they had to be polite with each other; they had to use their ingenuity and manners to keep conversations flowing and entertaining.

But by around 1715, noble conversation to entertain would be transformed into conversation to search for truth. There we enter into the salon worlds of the enlightened philosophes and discover the origin of the public sphere.

Miller takes us into the coffee-house worlds of eighteenth century England. Called “penny universities,” and sometimes feared by the monarchy, coffee houses sprang up everywhere in England and Scotland. Coffee houses had existed earlier, but at the beginning of the eighteenth century, with the emergence of both luxury goods and a reading public (the famed Spectator magazine was first published in 1711), people from different walks of life began to “discuss politics without fear of arrest” (Miller, 2006, p. 91).

The works of philosophy, literature and scientific developments became topics of conversation in the coffee houses, the most famous of which were in London. Thus, enlightened thinking in seventeenth and eighteenth century France and England created conversable worlds in their salons and coffee shops. Indeed, the republic of letters was fashioned in public spaces opening up outside the censored and monitored domains (such as kingly courts and academies).

In one of his earliest works, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (German, 1962; English trans. 1989), Habermas demonstrated how the modern public sphere emerged from the constellation of coffee houses and literary gatherings, many kinds of voluntary associations, and the new publicity of the press.

Face-to-face rational-critical debate carried the promise of energetic citizens assembling and acting together in dialogue to generate views to guide the state. The latter assertion recalls Tocqueville’s celebration of American passion for “organized togetherness” and J. Stuart Mills’ belief that conversation occupied the key space between the press and parliament.

The Enlightenment changed the way people thought about conversation. In the seventeenth century courts, men and women engaged in conversation as an immensely pleasurable activity. It had to be playful, dancing lightly from topic to topic, witty and gay. Inevitably, this courtly style was viciously satirized by people like the dyspeptic Rousseau.

But gradually the new conversational mode shifted from the “aesthetic preoccupations of a privileged elite” to address the “basic problems of the new culture” (Crevari, 2005, p. 357). Commenting on eighteenth century debate, Jean-Paul Sermain writes that “conversation was conceived as a group activity to further the advance of reason by offering an open and attentive method of inquiry into the best subjects and as a sold reassurance of social cohesion, so as to strengthen a concern for the public good” (as cited, Crevari, 2005, p. 357).

Philosophes like the Abbe Morellet believed that conversation had several advantages: that in awakening and sustaining the attention of all its participants, it draws a contribution from everyone to the expense and delight of all. It helps, facilitates, and renders more fruitful the work of one who has taken the first steps. Very often the one talking has but an incomplete idea, the development of which he has not appreciated.

If he announces it in society, one of those present will be impressed and will perceive the link with one of his own ideas; he will bring them together. This rapprochement in turn excites the first speaker, who sees that his initial opinions can be further developed; and with everyone contributing to the growth of this first fund, the communal contribution will soon be enriched” (as cited, Crevari, 2005, pp. 358-9).

Thus, conversation is conceived of a way of thinking. In fact, the philosophes like the ancient Greeks used the dialogue as their preferred way of communicating the written world. Diderot’s daring work, Le Reve de d’Alembert (1769), reaches conclusions that “do not result from the theorizing of a single individual but appear as the ‘necessary’ result of a single individual but appear as the ‘necessary’ result of an exchange of voices. A plurality of points of view integrates and empowers a communal philosophical exploration” (Crevari, 2005, p. 361).

Like other philosophes, Diderot believed that public opinion was becoming a powerful force in itself. Writing to the Minister of Finance on June 22, 1775, Diderot declared: “Opinion, all of whose force for good and for evil you know, originates only from the effect of a small number of men who speak after having thought and who endlessly create, at different points in society, centers of instruction from whence their reasoned truths and errors spread from person to person until they reach the confines of the city where they become established articles of faith….What we write influences only a certain class of citizen, our conversation influences everyone” (as cited, ibid., p. 362).

Features of Good Conversations

We now turn our attention to the idea that “good conversations” (some of the key elements have already been gleaned from the Enlightenment sages) is a practicable goal for proponents of the conversable learning society. Habermas says that the fact that we can speak of “distorted communication” fills us with the modest hope that the ideal can be realized, even if only partially.

Even at the darkest end of a “spiral of violence” lies the possibility that we could understand “what has gone wrong and what needs to be repaired” (as cited, G. Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida [2003], p. 35).

Although we have the ontological capacity to learn to listen and heed others, for a variety of reasons (faulty socialization, schools that do not teach us the communicative virtues, absence of conversational spaces, thinning cultural cohesion, and intensified individualism) we may not understand fully what is required for good conversations to occur.

We have to know what the criteria for good conversations are and what is required of us. What do we need to know, be and do in order to realize forms of learning beyond the assertive discourse so prevalent in our popular and scholarly cultures? Gemma Fiumara (The Other Side of Language: a philosophy of listening [1995, p. 8]) decries the “crushing deafness produced by an assertive culture intoxicated by the effectiveness of its own ‘saying’ and increasingly incapable of paying ‘heed’.”

In The Muted Conscience: moral silence and the practice of ethics in business (1996) Frederick Bird identifies seven features of good conversations. Like Habermas, Bird believes that “minimal normative standards” are inherent in the “actual activity of conversing insofar as this activity realizes its aim and is indeed constructive and interactive” (p. 207). When conversations are successful, engaged parties are able to “reach norm-setting agreements, to make good judgments and to educate themselves and others…” (p. 208).

Specifying the features of good conversations can be viewed as a critical tool. We are aware that in the messy world conversations can be stopped and distorted in various ways. But we need to have some benchmarks to guide our conversation, particularly in public spaces (Habermas has offered us the “ideal speech situation”).

The starting point for a good conversation lies in the self-confident personality who can voice his or her concerns recognizably. Those who are beaten down like dogs, hang their heads like slaves, or run with their tail between their legs make poor conversation partners. When we say what we mean, we must be “attentive to each other” (p. 209).

We can’t always be on the edge of leaping in to propose a solution before our conversation partner has finished sharing their experience. If we respect the other, we will be willing to listen to them. This heeding of the other requires openness to what lies before us (creating a space between oneself and the object of contemplation). Bird thinks that attentive listening is a “critical factor in making good conversations possible” (p. 210).

Good conversations must move forward reciprocally. The elegant salon participants knew this well. Once initiated, “really good conversations” develop as parties ‘adjust to the concerns and expectations of the other” (p. 211). Each party speaks and each responds to “what the other has just said” (ibid.).

This intricately choreographed dance requires energy, skill, creativity, and openness to being surprised or challenged. We cannot simply lay our monologue or declaration alongside that of another. In negotiation situations, this means bargaining in good faith. The quantum physicist, David Bohm (On Dialogue [1996]), observes that most of the so-called United Nations “dialogues” are more like diffuse discussions because the people who take part are not really open to questioning their fundamental assumptions.

They are trading off minor points, like negotiating whether we have more or few nuclear weapons. But the whole question of two different systems is not being seriously discussed….A great deal of what call ‘discussion’ is not deeply serious, in the sense that there are all sorts of things which are held to be non-negotiable and not touchable,…” (p. 7).

Bird (1996) thinks that good conversations are rational. This constituent element assumes rightly that good conversations must be “intelligible, reasonable, and thought-provoking” (p. 214). Our bodily and verbal languages must be comprehensible to others. We cannot speak in code known only to initiates. Our rhetoric cannot mystify our audience.

Executives, consultants, priests, academics, and gurus may use language so forbidding that their conversational partners cannot enter their domains gracefully. Bird insists that it is “reasonable in all settings to provide comprehensible and falsifiable explanations for all assertions about empirical observations and to support moral claims in understandable and debateable justifications” (ibid.).

These are challenging words in our time. What are the requirements and rules of engagement for those who are committed to religious dogmas and make demands of society, or enter into debates about the common good? Likewise, what is required of secular minds who engage those of religious persuasion? Can we imagine—as Habermas does—complementary learning processes occurring in our world of shredded conversation possibilities?

Bird believes that good communication must be honest and speakers must keep the promises they make. “Good conversations can proceed, establish agreed-upon undertakings, and facilitate good judgments only to the degree that the parties involved are willing and able to make and keep their promises” (p. 219).

Today distrust of political communication is at an all-time high. Nonetheless, if conversations are to be egalitarian and reciprocal, the “parties must arrive at some sense of how they will converse” (p. 219). Partners in conversation must find ways to reach consensus on agendas, degree of formality of exchanges, the nature of conversational leadership, emotional tonality, assumptions, and subject matter.

And, finally, exchanges must remain civil. We must avoid insult and slander, or “excessive displays of anger, self-pity, or other emotions that may derail ongoing conversations” (p. 220). We ought to act with decorum, waiting our turn (conversation means “with” [con] “turn” [vert], learning not interrupt others.

Thus, these seven features may be viewed as basic building blocks for learning to occur in informal, non-formal, and formal settings. Adult leadership must ensure that these benchmarks infiltrate our community organizations and our practices in a wide variety of deliberative spaces.

Chambers’ text, “Feminist discourse/practical discourse,” in J. Meehan (Ed.), Feminists read Habermas: gendering the subject of discourse [1995]), asks what is required of a society that adopts the “ideal of a consensually steered society” (p. 163). What does it demand of its citizens? What place does a shared consensus have in our pluralistic world?

She hopes that examining the dynamics of a small group of feminist anti-nuclear activists will shed some light on the above questions. As others have done before her, she wonders if the dynamics of a small-scale activist group can be replicated at the level of society at large.

While she thinks it can be reproduced at this general level, she considers that the analysis of the women’s encampment for a future of peace and justice, established at Seneca Army Depot in the summer of 1983, underscores the need for groups and organizations to ensure that the appropriate procedures are in place for discursive democracy to be enacted. The women had to have “foundational meetings” to adopt procedures for “consensual will-formation” (p. 165).

Once the women had decided that consensus would be their decision-procedure, they had to construct “guidelines for actual implementation” (ibid.). They published a fifty-page handbook. Chambers observes that the views of the Seneca women was strikingly similar to that those of Habermas.

All participants had the right to speak, every actor affected by the norm could enter, each participant had an equal chance to speak and be heard, and anything could be challenged.

The Seneca women understood that they were going to undergo an “extensive learning process” (p. 166). Crucially, they “did not simply lay out rules of discourse which should not be broken, but attempted to specify the concrete attitudes, sentiments, and modes of talk that are necessary to be a discursive as opposed to a strategic actor” (ibid.).

The women drew upon cultural feminist resources (an ethic of care) to realize the abstract ideas of ideal speech or good conversations. Chambers believes that “public debate as a democratized forum in which we cooperatively construct common understandings and work through out differences” (p. 176) can be realized only if we open up “opportunities to participate, by including excluded voices, by democratizing media access, by setting up “town meetings,” by politicizing the depoliticized, by empowering the powerless, by decentralizing decision-making, by funding public commissions to canvas public opinion, and so on” (pp. 176-177).

Her deepest insight may be the observation that “[i]mplementing practical discourse, then, is not so much a matter of setting up a constitutionally empowered ‘body’ of some sort as it is of engendering a practice. It involves fostering a political culture in which citizens actively participate in public debate and consciously adopt the discursive attitudes of responsibility, self-discipline, respect, cooperation, and productive struggle necessary to produce consensual agreements” (p. 177). Habits of argument must change. Historically, they have, and this fact holds out some hope for our agonistic times.

It is important for those of us committed to the ideal of deliberative democracy to become increasingly more aware of what prevents conversations from proceeding and what counts as a sophisticated argument. In our therapeutic culture, we do not seem to be interested in sophisticated arguments. Rather, we love to share our opinions and affirm one another (or on the social media, viciously savage one another).

We do not want to challenge each other, but rather seem to want the intellectual display to be a pleasurable world game, a kind of regressive return to the salons of seventeenth and eighteenth century France.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.