The Impoverishment of American Conversation

I've become convinced that if there ever were a manly and profitable use of social networking, it would be to rarely post information about where the user is, or what he's doing, or how he's feeling, but always about what he's thinking.  And if this appears strange to most Americans, it proves something very backward about the way they think: that by sharing the contents of a person's ideas and beliefs, he would be rudely sharing something personal; and that if he were to be more polite, instead of speaking openly about what he sees as truth, he would share more information about things that really concern nobody else.

Yet in my experience, there are few men, if any, who enjoy being cornered by a grandmother armed with a photo album of her grandchildren, or a man who constantly talks about his exercise routines, and I believe that a very similar sentiment applies to the majority of us who are cornered with small talk.  Of course, with the proud grandmother, we smile and nod and usually fake some sort of appreciation, but the truth is that such "discourse" is personal because it serves only the one who is speaking.  And looking beyond the self-serving conversation, if there is a kind of talking which benefits no one, it would be small talk.  For, ignoring even personal interest, small talk makes conversation for conversation's sake alone -- not necessarily to intertwine interests or to improve, but to essentially evade everyone within hearing range.  If we (as many Americans do) consider small talk and the sharing of uninteresting information impersonal and thus worth sharing, it is only because either one or both parties have been cheated out of serious personal fellowship.

On the other hand, there are really two reasons why we believe the substantial discussion of ideas to be personal.  The first is that our ideas display our grasp of reality; second, they explain the way we live our lives.  But in response to the former assertion, there is nothing less impersonal, in my opinion, than someone's grasp of an idea -- first, because truths do not really belong to any of us, but should belong to all of us, and second, because if we are wrong about a fact, the best thing that could happen to us is that we are corrected.  The belief that an idea is something personal, simply because a person holds it, shows that we consider thinking not a matter of reason, or practicality, or any form of righteousness whatsoever, but a matter of imaginative conceit.  A man whose opinions are not worth sharing enjoys opinions that are not worth having; he merely believes himself entitled to fantasy.  To this man, I suppose that an idea may be personal, and if it is this personal, then he should do us all a favor and never speak.

But the second reason we believe ideas to be personal, that they explain the way we live our lives, is even less personal than the first.  If it can be proven that our beliefs necessarily impact our behaviors -- in other words, that thought is the basis of human action, and that man may be held responsible for his deeds -- then there is nothing less personal than our beliefs.  The idea that man is entitled to pride in his political, religious, and social opinions, that he may somehow behave in the way he behaves, but that he may not speak of it, or, if he does speak of it, should always be respected for it, implies that we believe speaking to be more offensive than doing.  For a man will always behave a certain way whether he speaks about it or not; by his silence, he never implies inaction.  And as the democratic tendencies of any situation increase, so does his enforcement of his opinion; if ideas are impersonal (that is to say, not exclusive to a single person), they are most impersonal in a democratic society, and thus should be spoken openly.  And I do not believe that any person, considering this proposition seriously, believes that forcing our opinions upon others with the power of the state is less offensive than simply sharing them.

Yet seeing as how this is the case, Americans do almost exactly the opposite.  Thinking the banal minutia of their lives somehow impersonal, and the things which mean everything to everyone personal, they feel perfectly comfortable ruining church and work and every other social gathering by blabbering on about what they've been eating or how the weather has been, entirely disregarding the true interests of others, haphazardly neglecting their spiritual development, and making every interaction an exercise in alienation (for as iron sharpens iron, one man sharpens another.  If this is the case, then it is only fair to say that Americans are making one another more useless and boring.).

If we have become a people so incapable of meaningful conversation, it can only be a result of two phenomena.  The first is that we are too prideful to bear examination; the second is that we are too cowardly to openly examine others -- and surely, we examine others whether we admit it or not.  The non-conversant society is a society both loveless and mindless -- loveless because we have lost the art of tactful correction and mindless because even should correction be tactful, we will not hear or bear it.  When men have ceased to love, they will cease to reason together; when men may reason with one another without injury, we may say they have learned to love.  And whatever else men believe about conversation, let us think rightly about it: that it is not an insult to have someone express himself openly with you; rather, it is an insult for him to think you not worthy of serious conversation (our Savior Himself commands us not to cast our pearls before swine).

There is a place most fitly suited to a loving rational conversation, and it is the church.  Christians have a moral and philosophical foundation to which they may appeal, which is Scripture; they have rules of discourse contained within the epistles; they are commanded to turn the other cheek when insulted, and to bear sincere reproach humbly.  I do not believe that concord has any ties more firm than those entwined by an eternal perspective, which trains men to wait in meekness for the deliverance of God, and that all evil will one day be subdued, and all harmony decreed, whether at home or abroad.  And if a man cannot hold himself to scriptural boundaries, then he may be held accountable by his brothers; and if he will not be held accountable by brothers, then he has no business being in church.  And this isn't to say that every opinion will be tolerated; it would be horribly backward to suggest that they should be.  But it is to say that men will congregate either according to their righteousness or according to their depravity, their ignorance, and their enlightenment, and that instead of a fragile and superficial ecumenism, divisions will yield more honest factions, as even the Apostle testifies.

Openness!  Liberality!  Honesty with humility, bravery with tact!  If these are not the marks of reasonable men, I ask you -- what are?  And if we cannot practice these virtues, and thus prove ourselves unreasonable, then it is only fair to ask what business we have living in a republic.

Jeremy Egerer is a convert to biblical conservatism from radical liberalism and the editor of the philosophical website American Clarity welcomes friend requests on Facebook.