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We Don’t Talk Merely to Persuade: a response to Rod Dreher
Manners were important in my family. I have written about this often. I was taught how to shake hands properly, how to navigate complex table settings, and how to pull a chair out for a woman at dinner.
The goal of all these lessons was, as I was told by everyone, “to make other people feel comfortable.” I griped in my adolescence that all these lessons were just antiquated rituals designed to reinforce class distinctions; later in life, after I’d been humbled a time or two, I came to find that these “antiquated rituals” were, in fact, extraordinarily precious. I could throw away marriages, careers, money, and reputation; I could even behave so badly that my freedom was taken from me. The one thing that could not be taken was manners.
In the WASPy culture in which I was raised, the ability to sustain a conversation with anyone and everyone was a particularly important virtue. “There are no boring people,” my grandmother said. “If someone strikes you as dull, it is because you haven’t found a way to draw them out.” We were trained as children to ask questions that would elicit real answers. We were reminded that we would encounter people who were shy or otherwise uncomfortable, and if we displayed sufficient interest and solicitousness, we could make even the most awkward introverts feel right at home
Every dinner, every office holiday party, every fundraiser was an opportunity to get people to open up about their lives and interests. It didn’t matter what they opened up about, as long as they were comfortable doing so. One could expect a veritable lifetime of nodding pleasantly through explanations of lepidopterology or postlapsarian theology or the origins of the West Coast/East Coast rap beefs of the mid 1990s.
(This is why “Our Kind of People” always separate married couples at dinner parties. Each spouse is expected to entertain a different series of dinner partners. One of the greatest pleasures of any WASP marriage is the debriefing on the drive home: “Darling, I heard the most interesting thing from Mr. McGillicuddy!” “Lucky you! Elodie Steinmetz insisted on describing her complicated strategy to win next month’s orchid competition. But I did learn a great deal!”)
My junior year at Berkeley, I served on a committee that arranged recreational and cultural events for the student cooperative housing system. For what was then the 15th anniversary of Roe v Wade (January 1988), I put together what was billed as “Life and Choice: Planned Parenthood and Operation Rescue in Conversation.” I had church friends connected to Operation Rescue, the anti-abortion outfit; I had many friends who volunteered at Planned Parenthood. After a great deal of negotiating, we got commitments from members of both organizations to agree to speak to our co-op members – and to each other. Two women, one from each group, sat together at a table, passing a microphone back and forth. They each made their points passionately. Each was civil to the other. They even shook hands at the end.
I was terribly pleased with myself. I was happy there was no shouting. I was happy so many people showed up. I was happy that I had gained the trust of folks on opposing sides. I couldn’t wait to tell my grandmother (a lifelong contributor to Planned Parenthood, going back to when it was called the Birth Control League) of my modest success. I had done what no one thought possible – get people who agreed on nothing to sit together and chat. I was proud, and probably excessively so.
Some of my female friends were aghast. They suggested that I was making a fetish out of conversation and civility. “All you did was force women to defend what they shouldn’t have to defend. Some things aren’t open to debate.” When I replied meekly that I thought everything deserved to be discussed, I was told (and not for the last time) that my male privilege had blinded me to what was really at stake. One friend asked me if I thought the debate had changed any minds. I admitted that it probably hadn’t but suggested that wasn’t the point. “The point was to show we can have civil conversations about hard topics,” I said.
My friend rolled her eyes. “Hugo, all you proved was that regardless of ideology, women have been trained to keep their anger in check and talk politely for the benefit of men. If polite conversation could change the world, that would have happened a long f*cking time ago.”
It’s been exactly 35 years since that event. I thought about it again as I read about the conversation last week between Rod Dreher and Andrew Sullivan. Dreher is an orthodox Christian and one of the most famously impassioned and articulate defenders of American social conservatism. The English-born Sullivan is a well-known pundit, a gay man who has been an indefatigable proponent of same-sex marriage and social libertarianism. Both men are gifted and winsome writers – and despite their vast ideological differences, each describes the other as a friend. Each has an admirable history of promoting dialogue with those with whom they disagree.
Here's Sullivan’s account of their chat, and here’s Dreher’s. (The former has a link to the actual podcast conversation.). Dreher writes:
Andrew Sullivan and I talked past each other the other night on his podcast. He believes quite sincerely in radical sexual freedom. I tried to explain how I believe that our moral behavior is embedded in a transcendent sacred order, but this made no sense to him. I tried to describe married sex as reproducing the life of the Trinity, which he thought was bonkers… I understand Andrew's point of view, I think -- and that's why I despair that people like him and people like me can ever reach agreement.
The problem with Dreher’s lament, of course, is that he misunderstands the primary purpose of conversation. We don’t’ talk to people only to reach agreement. If we are going to talk to people with whom we disagree about fundamentals, then there are going to be a great many moments where we “talk past” each other. If you believe that the only purpose of talking to people is to convince them to join your side, then talking past each other is an understandable source of immense frustration. If you see your public role as being a missionary or a salesperson, then “talking past” the other person is evidence that one or both of you have failed. If you want to win converts, or sell product, then the purpose of conversation is to get the other person to see the world as you see it. I would suggest that’s an impoverished view of friendship -- and of a good talk.
The missionary/sales mindset sees rhetoric and cordiality and manners as tools to be deployed to achieve a particular outcome. The name of the game is persuasion, and if neither of you shows any signs of being persuaded, then the conversation is a waste of time. I despair that people like him and people like me can ever reach agreement, laments Dreher, immediately after noting that he does understand Sullivan’s point of view. My grandmother would smile winningly at Mr. Dreher and say, “Dear boy, we do not converse merely to reach agreement.”
It's been a long time since I put together that public conversation between Planned Parenthood and Operation Rescue. Of all the things I did in college, it remains the thing of which I am proudest. I knew then, and know better now, that it is a given that when we hold such deeply held convictions on subjects like abortion, we are very likely to talk past each other. We are unlikely to come to agreement. The victory, though, isn’t in the persuading – it’s in the conversing itself. The victory is the unflagging willingness to engage in conversation, to remain friendly and charitable even when your bedrock principles are misunderstood (or rejected after being understood all too well!)
I’ve spent a lot of my life around people who are warriors for causes. Some are joyful warriors; some are bitter ones; some actively seek out opportunities to persuade others while others content themselves with shouting at the television. They want to bring about the Revolution, or they want to build Christ’s Kingdom, or they want some other happy vision to manifest itself. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m belittling those who believe in things with all their heart and soul. I’m not. I am pointing out that true believers make the mistake of seeing conversation as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. If every conversation is a chance to tell someone new about Jesus Christ, or about Karl Marx, or Dianetics, or Essential Oils, then every conversation that doesn’t open the doorway to conversion to your pet cause is a reason to (at least briefly) despair.
I don’t know that old-fashioned WASP manners have much use in contemporary society. I’m quite prepared to believe that they are antiquated affectations. And yet. The WASP view of conversation as an end in itself is a worthy one. Sometimes, the purpose of talking isn’t to persuade (or to allow ourselves to be persuaded) but to give the other person the pleasure of being heard. We don’t just talk to each other because we want the other person to do or think or buy a certain thing. We talk to each other because talking and listening is the most human of things. Conversation without agreement is not an occasion for despair, but a reminder that even when our fundamental assumptions differ, we can still comfort and cheer one another.
In this querulous and partisan age, the WASP ideal of conversation for conversation’s sake has much to recommend it.