January 15, 2011
Conversation, Argument, and CivilityBy Jack Kerwick
Interestingly, in spite of the fact that our generation is probably as loquacious a generation as there has ever been, there is relatively little conversation to be found in it.
We are a chatty people, to be sure, but we are not conversable. Unfortunately, however, it seems that the more communicative we become, the rarer becomes this priceless craft.
Reflection on conversation discloses a number of respects in which conversation distinguishes itself as a species of discourse. Since it is commonly confused with "the argument," it would serve us well to attend to the differences between the two.
While conversation can encompass passages of argument, it is not itself an argument. The argument is an engagement of much value, certainly, but its end is that of victory. As such, its participants assume the personae of opponents, and its terms are those of thesis and antithesis.
Conversation, in contrast, has no end beyond itself. Its motion is inspired not by the vision of some good -- like victory -- that has yet to be obtained, but by the satisfaction intrinsic to it -- namely, the delight to be had from conversing with others. The twofold opportunity it offers, to gain a hearing for one's own voice while simultaneously providing that same hearing to the voice of another, is the double-joy constitutive of conversation. In it, we relish in the belief -- too vivid to be denied -- that the seemingly impossible has been actualized, that some distance has been traversed in bridging the apparently unbridgeable chasm separating persons. Conversation is the greatest of consolations, for it arrests our fears that we are alone while simultaneously abating our loneliness.
Unlike the argument, conversation relieves us of some of the contentiousness with which life is ridden. This is no small feat, for whatever other functions they fulfill, every instance of conflict serves as a painful reminder of our finitude. Thus, in granting us a reprieve, however temporary, from conflict, conversation supplies us with an intimation of immortality, a glimpse of eternity. That there is considerable truth in this is born out by the ease with which time eludes those of us who have enjoyed the blessing of good conversation ("I just lost all track of time!").
And unlike the persona of an opponent demanded by argument, that required by conversation is one of friend. This, of course, doesn't mean that conversation is possible only if the interlocutors are literally friends; what it means is that because of the informality and relative intimacy of which conversation consists, conversation itself is an approximation of friendship.
There are indeed shared virtues, excellences the exercise of which are as indispensable to the practice of conversation as to that of argument -- e.g., civility and self-restraint. But there are as well skills peculiar to each of these art forms.
Argument requires analytical rigor, expertise in the issue upon which the argument centers, facility with language (i.e., articulation), and combativeness. Matters are otherwise with conversation.
Of course, it is true that at its best, conversation requires a measure of intelligence, but the intellectual prowess essential to argument is not only unnecessary for conversation, but its exercise threatens to impede conversation. The informality, spontaneity, and intimacy central to conversation are unsuited to a mind disposed to regard the utterances of its interlocutor as assertions to be analyzed and countered.
Partners to a conversation need not have much in the way of knowledge of its topic; in fact, the less they know, the better the conversation is likely to be, for it is of the nature of conversation to encompass multiple topics, each of which springs effortlessly from the one that precedes it and all of which may, in principle, be treated with a casualness, even a playfulness, improper to argument.
Skill in explicit excogitation is not a prerequisite for conversation. Relatively few can be said to be "articulate," and so if articulation were required for conversation, the latter would be an engagement foreclosed to most. As we have seen, like every other activity, conversation presupposes the satisfaction of conditions, but it is vastly more inclusive than argument. Both argument and conversation are possible only between peers, it is true, but only in conversation can any two (or more) people be peers: elderly women and small children, college professors and their students, sanitation workers and doctors -- all can avail themselves of the delights of conversation with one another.
As for combativeness, it is as appropriate a penchant for the partners in a conversation as it is for partners in dance; there is no surer means by which to divest a conversation of its character than for one or more of its parties to become contentious.
Yet it isn't only argument from which conversation separates itself. The pseudo-conversation with which our television and radio air waves are replete bears only a superficial similarity to the genuine article.
At any given moment during a conversation, one partner may take the lead, as it were, but the pseudo-conversations characteristic of the media -- whether "conservative" or "liberal" -- are marked by a glaring asymmetry of power between the host or moderator and the other participants. Talk radio hosts, say, regularly and effortlessly select and silence callers depending on whether the callers satisfy the imposed content and time restrictions. That is, the order of the pseudo-conversation is imposed upon it; it has none of the spontaneity and dynamism intrinsic to the conversation.
So great is the value of conversation that it is tempting -- and perhaps impossible -- not to think of Heaven as an eternal conversation. Yet whether from an exaggerated sense of self-importance -- the longing to be heard, rather than to listen -- or some other cause, the painful fact remains that conversation is becoming, if it hasn't already become, a lost art.