Creating a Culture of Conversation

It’s very sad to see so many angry, disrespectful and intimidating outbursts in recent public meetings on the critical issue of health care reform. Of course, we all have our opinions about how people are conducting themselves…some agree with the anger they hear and see, while others are appalled by the content and the methods of those who are disrupting the meetings. My suspicion is that there’s much more going on here than some confrontations over health care reform. It’s not really about health care or reform or the pending legislation…that’s just the topic du jour. In this post and the next, I’m going to share some thoughts on how we talk as a public about critical issues…and then about what I see as an on-going dilemma for citizens like us who continue to live out the American experiment in participatory government. First and foremost, how we talk with each other when times are tough and disagreements are deep indicates our willingness to invest in a healthy future.

These angry confrontations are happening in town hall meetings across the country, but some are even happening in places where respect is normally observed…like in churches. A clergy colleague in a neighboring community recently wrote a letter to the editor of his local newspaper about their experiences. In this letter, the pastor shared that their hope was for “a time of listening and learning about the very important issues of Health Care Reform”. For their informational event, they’d invited their Congressional Representative and several local health care professionals. He continues: “I deeply regret to report that the forum was hijacked by the boorish behavior of a large group of unruly people that came to simply disrupt the proceeding;” and, “They made a mockery out of a public forum. By rudely shouting at our guest speakers this large and well-organized group spoiled what might otherwise have been an informative and helpful evening;” and, I felt myself surrounded by a group of people whose sole purpose seemed to be to express their deep-seated anger and mistrust of government….”

Some of us are asking, ‘How can it be that we’ve degenerated to this point?’ The answer to this question may be both simple and complex…simple in the diagnosis, but complex in the treatment. The current list of symptoms points to a long-term atrophy in our capacity to hold a civil conversation. Sadly, I’m not sure we’ve ever had much of a capacity to converse in a healthy way on difficult topics, but in the past several decades it appears that we’ve neglected the development of personal and small group conversation skills to a dangerous point.

Perhaps we’ve been too comfortable…or busy…or lazy. Or perhaps it’s just too easy now to stay connected to the people we already know through our technological wizardry, so we rarely have the need or opportunity to speak with people who disagree with us on public issues. In past generations, more public issues were discussed in public meetings, and certain standards of civil conduct were the norm. Of course, these meetings most times were focused on local problems, and these are much easier to navigate than national one, but even very emotion-filled topics were discussed in a more-or-less respectful and polite manner. Obviously that has changed.

My point is not that some people don’t follow the rules any longer…my point is that we no longer have a cultural expectation or capacity for respectful yet content-rich conversation. Respectful conversation is its own language…and if you don’t speak a language on a regular basis you will soon find that you’ve lost the ability. In order to be able to converse with one another on critical issues during difficult times, the public must gather to discuss less critical issues during good times. This is why I’m inclined to think our neglect may just be a result of too much comfort for too long…we as the public haven’t had to exercise our skills in public conversation much, so our capacity to do so is seriously compromised.

Now, the tough part…how do we work together to build our capacity in public conversation? First, we have to want this for ourselves, for our neighbors, and even for those who disagree with us. Next, we have be willing to spend the time, energy and resources it takes in long-term practice to create a culture of conversation on all the important topics that continue to be unresolved due to our neglect. Also, we have to be willing to listen to angry and frustrated and disruptive people, because like it or not even they have things to say that we need to hear for outcomes in public policy everyone can live with. The outbursts at meetings about health care reform appear to me to be just the symptoms of a systemic dysfunction…we can expect this kind of behavior to become the norm if we see it as topic-based…or part of a conspiracy…or somebody else’s problem.


Archived Comment:

Craig, society has changed. Witness the teenager who strolls across the intersection in front of you whereas the 80 yearold with a walker tries to hurry. It’s partly that individuals do not get attention any more, but groups do. Congress does not listen to the silent majority, who would like to steer down the center of the road. Congress veers wildly from one extreme to the other. Rep Miller has been repeatedly asked by VV school district to fix NCLB. It can’t graduate 100% of the students; you know the bell curve tells us that. Society is crowded, hurried, broke and despondent. There is little time for curtesy. Hopefully I at least raised my hand most of the time at your meetings. :’)

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