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?

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