Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Conversation

What Ta-Nehisi Coates said...

Expecting an American conversation on race in this country, is like expecting financial advice from someone who prefers to not check their bank balance. It's not that the answers, themselves, are pre-ordained, its that we are more interested in answers than questions, in verdicts than evidence...

It's not so much that we don't know--it's that we aspire to not know. The ignorance of the African-American thread in the broader American quilt--the essential nature of that thread--is willful, and the greatest evidence that the spirit of white supremacy walks with us. There was a lot of self-congratulation around the justice done on Shirley Sherrod. It's premature. The thing will happen again. Race isn't a "distraction" from Obama's agenda--it's the compromised, unsure ground upon which this country walks everyday. It is the monster, and it will not be evaded writing Shirley Sherrod off to the machinations of the 24-hour news cycle.

Talk is overrated. There can be no talk with people who've conditioned themselves out of listening. This is the country we've made. This is the country we deserve.

Of course, Coates is reacting to the Shirley Sherrod situation and he's talking specifically about the "race conversation." But I think it applies to most all of our communication these days - at least most of the online variety that I've seen.

As I think about this I wonder what it would take for us to have that conversation. I keep coming back to what Coates said...its about curiosity - asking questions - listening.

But curiosity doesn't seem to be what we're aiming for these days. Instead, we seem to be caught up in the value of self-expression. A few months ago, Al Giordano wrote an interesting post titled Facebook, Privacy, and the New Exhibitionism.

Jacques Ellul wrote, prophetically in 1948, the radio age, that, “we live in an age of non-response.” The subsequent advent of new communications technologies like television and mass media only made that more true. The more “information” that has bombarded us with each passing day and year, the more isolated and alienated folks in the “developed world” have felt. TV played a big role in atomizing the nuclear family and the long tradition of conversation (which used to be the glue that held cultures and societies together). And the rest of capitalism and media did away with quaint concepts like “community.”

Increasingly, the individual – his and her ego, super ego and id – ended up floating out there no longer having a captive audience inside or outside the home or the community. The new technological distractions just proved more, well, distracting.

Along came the Internet and many of us thought, “Aha! Finally, a screen we can talk back to!” One of the buzzwords of the ‘90s and early ‘00s was the concept of “online community.” People sought out and found like-minded strangers and conversation shifted from oral to typed format. It was the simulacrum of “response” that had been missing from so many lives.

So perhaps we're still in "response" mode culturally after so many years of passivity and isolation.

But frankly, I'm tired of it. It seems like everywhere I go on the internet, what I find is either like-minded people congratulating themselves for being so right about everything, or folks shouting their opinions at each other while shedding more heat than light. I know that I bought into the latter as I tried to find my voice amidst all of the shouting. But after awhile, its not very satisfying. I needed to break away from that as I found myself digging in and defending rather than opening up and learning.

I'd like to talk to people who have different experiences than mine - in terms of politics, race, gender, class, geography, sexuality, etc. Surely sometimes that will mean conflict - that's the cutting edge of learning for me. But there's no reason that curiosity and conflict can't be partners. A friend of mine once called it the "state of critical ambivalence."

I reposted the diary below titled How do you change your mind? as both an introduction and a reminder to me about how that has happened for me over my lifetime.

So I'm wondering if there's anyone else out there who is longing for the conversation. If so, is there someplace you go to find it? Where does the cutting edge of your curiosity about life find its satiation?

How do you change your mind?

The assumption in that question is that we change our minds. I would certainly hope that's true. After all, its hard to imagine thinking of ourselves as progressives if we can't "progress" in our thinking. But it seems to me that this is a question we can only answer for ourselves. I would imagine that the process is unique to the individual.

But in a world of political dialogue - I think this is an important thing to know about both ourselves and those with whom we are in dialogue. So here's how I would answer the question.

First of all...some background. I was raised mostly in East Texas in a family and community of rightwing christian fundamentalists. As a child, I didn't rebel...just accepted all I was taught. With the benefit of hindsight however, I see that I was an observer. I spent most of my childhood and adolescence staying out of the fray and watching from the sidelines. That turns out to have been the first step in changing my mind...paying attention.

In my 20's and 30's, that activity of observation presented me with alot of cognitive dissonance. What I had been taught to think and what I observed in the world didn't jive. So I began asking questions - of myself more than of others. That, to me, is the groundbreaker to changing our minds...questions.

By David Whyte

if you move carefully
through the forest

like the ones
in the old stories

who could cross
a shimmering bed of dry leaves
without a sound.

you come
to a place
whose only task

is to trouble you
with tiny
but frightening requests

conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.

Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,

to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,

that can make
or unmake
a life,

that have patiently
waited for you,

that have no right
to go away.

I think that the most radical thing we can do is to ask ourselves questions. Once I began the process, I couldn't stop until I found the ground I was comfortable standing on...until the dissonance started to fade. I hope it never goes away. But it is certainly a balancing act for me at the moment. That's because I've come to see that it is important to have a certainty in my convictions. Otherwise the changing winds can blow me here and there. But, as Nezua at The Unapologetic Mexican put so beautifully, there is danger in surety as well.

We are always new. Every moment is new. No moment need be like anything that came before, even when the resemblance is striking and our imagination lacking. And yet, of course we must learn from who we once were. But to let a lesson that once helped inform every step forward is to walk an old path, and to preclude the sight of new horizons from our view.<...>

Because life is not like a series of books in a course on ...anything. It fluctuates. We fluctuate. We are not a being, but a becoming, as Friedrich once said. And sometimes ideas are hammered out and we draw lines and walls and are told we fall on one side or the other and so do our thoughts and so does all that follows from them...and so it goes. We buy into these illusory borders.<...>

Being sure is but the borderwall we place around a heart to ward off the skinstripping wind of the next living moment.

So how to maintain that balance becomes the key question to me. There is a lot of comfort in being sure - that "skingstripping wind of the next living moment" can be hard to endure. But stasis is deadly too. We're currently watching conservatives drown in it as the world around them demands change and adaptation.

As it pertains to many blog conversations, I can tell you that someone yelling at me that I'm wrong tends to send me to the place of surety to defend my position. In some cases I can, with the benefit of hindsight, reflect on that kind of conversation and change my mind. But its difficult to do and almost impossible "in the moment."

What tends to work better for me is someone asking probing questions that re-create that sense of dissonance enough that I am invited to reflect. I also find that as I am in a position to articulate what I think, either in opposition or reflection, I have to ask myself those questions in order to create a response. That tends to change me as well and is one of the main reasons why I blog.

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