“It’s getting pretty noisy in here with all of our ‘national conversations,’” writes Carlos Lozada in the Washington Post. The president loves to call for them, but so do figures from all corners of our public life, like Newt Gingrich and Bill Bennett. And not just recently (Lozada cites examples from as far back as the 1990s, though it does seem this cliche has gained particular ascendency over the past few years).
Of course, respecting the person with whose ideas or practices you disagree is a prerequisite for productive discussion, and an act of sheer decency. But it’s just that–a basic, expected step. At some point authentic charity starts to concern itself with truth. So “conversation” isn’t le mot juste when the summons is really to heighten our consideration of a specific, predetermined topic. It’s not always disingenuous, but it is broadly off-key:
A true conversation “doesn’t have a goal; it’s spontaneous,” says Daniel Menaker, the author of “A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation.” It’s about “making a human connection . . . you walk away feeling better.”
Our alleged national conversations don’t fit the bill, Menaker contends. “Better just to call them what they are — a discussion, a debate, even an argument.”
Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank has suggested that politically inspired national conversations are unavoidable in a talk-therapy age. And certainly, when a politician calls for a national conversation on reproductive health, it’s more inviting than saying, “Hey, let’s fight about birth control!” But fiercely held and mutually exclusive opinions won’t magically disappear if we frame them as a feel-good conversation.
But it’s also the first word in that phrase–“national”–that makes the “conversation” difficult. In a vast republic with mass politics, it’s difficult to marry the nostalgic intimacy of a fireside chat with the dizzying scale of broadcast media (some have tried). Yet even if these discussions do happen to unfold simultaneously in parallel smaller settings (Americans suddenly decide to “talk to their kids about X,” or “stand up for Y in their church or community board”), how does that attain broader significance? An interesting side-effect is, as Lozada notes, the rise of the stage-managed “town hall” format for political events, wherein politicians and candidates can convey that closely bound, every-citizen-counts approach to discussion while still ensuring the “conversation” moves very deliberately towards a conclusion.
And something’s askew with the order, too: “Consider who has launched the true national conversations over the past five years. It hasn’t been politicians; they’re usually playing catch up.”