Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Difficulty Surrounding "Difficult Conversations"

First, as I always say after a long blogging hiatus, thanks for reading.

The past couple of years have certainly seen their share -- and then some -- of divisive rhetoric.  I sort of don't *want* to believe this, because it cuts against the grain of my all-American optimism and general sense that we're constantly on the march towards something better than we had before, but it looks like the overall climate around public discourse is deteriorating.

Who's to blame?  Well, familiar bogeymen include the President, the media, whichever political party you don't belong to, and social media.  And maybe all of them are a bit guilty of something.  Regardless, that whodunit is way more ambitious undertaking than my time and inclinations allow for here.

So in the meantime, I'll just say this:  my LEAST favorite expression in the modern public vernacular is "difficult conversations."

The reason I dislike it so much isn't because I am afraid to have difficult conversations; on the contrary, I'd really love one.  Or several.  Instead, it's because the phrase is so loathsomely disingenuous.

Almost invariably, someone proposing to have "difficult conversations" or generally opining that Americans need to have more "difficult conversations" is suggesting anything but.  Rather, he or she is really saying:  more people need to wake up and see the world they way that I do.  Now, I don't have a problem with that per se, and I probably have a lot in common with whoever is saying it, at least in terms of their intent -- people in comparatively privileged, comfortable positions don't just naturally, on their own, even consider the points of view of marginalized people, without considerable prodding.

So prod.  If you want to lecture me, then lecture.  At least to a point, I'm eager to listen.  But please don't call it a 'difficult conversation.'

If you want conversation?

Well, first of all, that term by its very definition involves two sides.  So that means that you can tell me how terrible you think Aziz Ansari is, but it also means that I would be able to offer up some mitigating details on his behalf.  That doesn't mean I think the two sides in this -- or any -- dispute or mix-up are equal parts valid.  And it doesn't mean that I have some knee-jerk, male reaction to every #MeToo allegation that's bubbled up since last fall.  But it is, well, a conversation.

Ditto for anything else.  It's not a difficult conversation to just yell about some government policy that "sucks" so your social media echo chamber can tell you that you "totally NAILED it!"  It's a LOT more difficult to look at the policy itself, think about ways it could be better crafted, and even -- gasp -- to ask whether someone in trouble with ICE could've done anything differently along the way. It's also really difficult and uncomfortable to ask why the media took a pass on the Mesa, AZ police execution of a man desperately pleading for his life, but ran unquestioningly with a false narrative in a different instance after a particular police shooting two years prior, sparking weeks of riots.

Those would be conversations that might be difficult for people from across the ideological perspective.

The perspective that I see the world through is that of a white, conservative, upwardly-mobile, well-educated, Protestant, heterosexual (is that what the kids means by cis?) male who has never been harassed by police, sexually assaulted, forced to worry about immigration status, or had to deal with an ongoing physical disability.

So is it important for me to step back from that and think about the worldview of someone who might not default as naturally to a lot of my assumptions and views?  Absolutely.  But do all those boxes I checked in the paragraph above invalidate my opinions and worldviews?  Do they necessarily make me wrong -- and you right -- about the things that we both observe? Absolutely not.  And that is precisely my point of departure with most of the Progressive voices I hear calling for these "difficult conversations" while describing something else entirely.

Please, I beseech you, let's just have some truth in advertising along the way.

Unless, of course, it's a conversation you're after.  In which case...


Jon and Kate said...

Have you been reading Jordan Peterson?

The New Englander said...

Just grabbed a copy of 12 rules! It's my train reading right now..