I am so over having a conversation.
Whether the issue is serious or trivial, complex or simple, long or short-term, the option of choice is to 'have a conversation'. But so much of the time, the talk is glib, uncivil, belligerent, misleading, dominated by privileged voices who decide what is said, how and by whom.
The call to conversation has been going on for some time. There was a time when dialogue was the preferred method of talk. This recollection prompted me to dig out my copy of David Bohm's book On Dialogue. Bohm was a theoretical physicist, and while his book was first published in 1996, some of the contents date from the early 1970s.
My edition was published in 2004 and I chuckled when I reread it. In his preface, Peter Senge mentions for Bohm: "The thing that mostly gets in the way of dialogue is holding to assumptions and opinions, and defending them." And in his chapter 'On Communication', (written in 1970), Bohm bemoans how the current state of technology (at the time, radio, television, air travel and satellites), had "woven a network of communications which puts each part of the world into almost instant contact" yet there was still a general feeling that "communication is breaking down everywhere, on an unparalleled scale".
While people these days may not have the patience to adopt his proposed dialogue method, Bohm does express some useful ideas. He contrasts dialogue with discussion, with its focus on analysis, like "a ping-pong game, where people are batting ideas back and forth and the object of the game is to win or to get points for yourself". This sounds like much of what these days passes for conversation, where the aim is to air views, score points, disparage alternatives, with little interest in questioning personal assumptions, let alone checking their accuracy or relevance.
Political responses to bushfires reflect many of the flaws of so-called conversation. False apologies that take no personal responsibility for poor choices; inappropriate blaming; disparaging labelling; telling rather than asking; imposing rather than consulting; uncompromising black-and-white definitions rather than nuanced analysis; unwillingness to change minds and compromise based on evidence; and attempts to silence voices by defining what can and can't be talked about.
I recently heard the Member for Maranoa, David Littleproud, suggest we needed to have a "mature conversation" about the bushfires. I doubt this will happen. It would mean considering ideas without automatically dismissing and disparaging them. David Bowman, who has studied bushfires for 40 years, suggested in Tuesday's Canberra Times that "we reschedule the peak holiday period to March or April, instead of December and January".
He writes: "It's easy to dismiss this idea as stupid but that's the nature of adaptation. Things that once seemed absurd will now need serious consideration. What's truly absurd is the business-as-usual approach that sees thousands of holidaymakers heading directly into forests and national parks right in the middle of peak bushfire season." I suspect social media responses won't be as tame as 'absurd' and 'stupid'.
A mature conversation would mean taking more care with language choices. In another Tuesday Canberra Times opinion piece, Siobhan McDonnell, a lecturer on natural disasters and climate change at ANU, explained the prime minister's misuse of the term "natural disasters" when referring to the bushfires. "As someone who lectures on disasters," she writes, "I can confidently state that there is no such thing as a 'natural disaster', particularly not in this age of climate change." Using this term is a nifty way of avoiding responsibility or taking science-based action.
Which is the main problem I have with these conversations. They mostly go nowhere. Assumptions and opinions are not considered, reassessed, changed. Opaque spin means we're caught on a treadmill of constant fact-checking. A mature dialogue would mean emotions are managed; insults, ridicule, false accusations are avoided; experts' views are sought and considered; judgements are suspended in order to understand; and action is taken. I doubt, though, that this is what Mr Littleproud had in mind.
The next time someone suggests having a conversation, stop and consider. Is that the best option? Will the parties to the conversation be capable of examining their own beliefs and assumptions and suspending judgement of others' views? And will it lead to anything worthwhile? If not, demand another option.
- Dr Ann Villiers is a career coach at Mental Nutrition.