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Column: The power of conversation

  • Chicago Tribune illustration -- Mike MIner

  • Bill Nichols. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 10/17/2020 10:10:11 PM
Modified: 10/17/2020 10:10:09 PM

A key assumption in Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation is this: “Face-to-face conversation is the most human — and humanizing — thing we do.” Her subtitle, The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, barely hints at what worries many of us now. Four years after her book was published, we fear, among other things, our incumbent president might tweet late on the night of Nov. 3 that the election returns have given him the victory. And, he might add, the Supreme Court will see no need for counting the remaining mail-in ballots, which are “out of control.”

Ten years ago, people spoke confidently of the “democratizing” potential in the internet. Now, despite valuable additions to our ability to communicate with each other, social media have helped Donald Trump and his ardent supporters damage our democracy. The Social Dilemma, a powerful documentary streaming on Netflix makes a convincing case that social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and Instagram are constructed to manipulate human behavior for profit. Russians don’t need to hack Facebook. They can simply use it for what it was built to do.

Social media manipulate us is by using what they learn about us to tell individual users what they want to hear, put them in touch with people who agree with them, and show them products they’re likely to find appealing. Not surprisingly, this “surveillance capitalism” is especially powerful with young people. It’s been linked to addictive online behavior, skepticism about the existence of truth, loss of confidence in democracy, harsh and dismissive interactions when disagreements arise, and destructive political polarization.

A study at the University of Missouri’s Political Communication Institute recently surveyed 179 college students, asking them first to identify their own political leanings. Next the students read partisan tweets from an imaginary classmate with whom they were likely to disagree. Once the investigators had studied the students’ evaluations of the classmate whose tweets they’d just read, they asked them to write narratives — stories — based on what they had learned about the classmate from the tweets. Finally, they were invited to re-evaluate their thinking about the classmate with whom they disagreed politically. After writing the narratives, the students’ assessments of their classmate became more complex, closer to empathy than to contempt, suggesting even “a sense of common identity.”

If you try to reconstruct your last good conversation, you’re likely to find in the talk you remember at least a story or two along with facts, opinions and questions. The threads holding a memorable conversation together, even sometimes establishing its direction, are often stories. Good conversations usually require trust and patience, and they go best when they are leisurely.

A debate is not really a conversation, but our country’s presidential debate on Sept. 29 was a reminder of how far political discourse has diverged from Turkle’s vision of human talk that can be humanizing. To look back at the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, which focused on slavery and touched on the possibility of civil war, is to see extreme political disagreement handled with civility.

Those famous debates were carried off without a moderator, but the Fox News moderator of our recent presidential debate was unable to stop President Donald Trump’s insistent interruptions of his challenger, leading former Vice President Joe Biden to utter what some of us unfortunately consider the most memorable line in their debate: “Will you shut up, man.”

Despite changes by the Commission on Presidential Debates in the format to provide “additional tools to maintain order,” it seems probable the remaining debate will resemble a bitter Facebook or Twitter exchange more than a good conversation, and like the discourse on those platforms it might influence millions of us in our attempts at political conversations.

Face-to-face conversations have become rare and difficult to arrange in the pandemic, and one of the things we’re learning is their value. Despite talk, common in the pandemic’s early days, about how much we can accomplish with online teaching, I’ve heard from teachers who claim to be learning even more about the educational importance of good conversations. People in politics and business, as well as health care professionals, are probably making similar discoveries.

In a shockingly hopeful essay in The Atlantic, “Make America Again,” George Packer recently wrote, “our collapse is so complete that the field lies open” — open, that is, for us to rebuild our broken democracy. He began his essay in despair, Packer says, but as he thought about the difficult steps required for the rescue of our country’s political system, he came to this conclusion: “We’ve made America before. Self-government still gives us the chance. Everything is in our hands.” Although he doesn’t say this, I suspect Packer would agree that people who disagree on the architectural plans for the rebuild will need to learn how to talk with each other.

Whatever the results are in our Nov. 3 election, we’re going to need millions of good conversations to restore confidence in ourselves as a democratic nation.

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at Nichols@Denison.edu.

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