Name one thing you have always been good at doing.
I have always been a fan of civil discourse. Few things in the world can engage me, mind and body, the way that a lively discussion can. There is something inherently captivating about listening to someone deliver an impassioned argument for a thought, belief, conviction, or issue that is important to them. It is infectious to watch a friend speak about something that causes their eyes to light up, their expressions to explode, and their voice to increase in volume and octave. I generally have been successful at facilitating these types of conversations in a way that maintains respect, courtesy, honesty, and an even temperament. Be it witnessing or participating in them, I love and excel at conversations of discourse.
I have a friend named Mark who is, by his nature, fantastically curious. I have traveled some with him and have come to expect, at any given moment, to find him engaged in a conversation with a perfect stranger; asking them inquiring questions about what they do, how something works, or “What is that?” He will stand there talking with them, taking in each detail the other party shares with him, with an engaged nod and slightly parted lips that signals “I am listening to every word and find this fascinating.” I admire and envy his curiosity, patience, and sanguine personality. I find it difficult to take that level of interest in some of the hobbies and jobs of others, or in the mechanics of how a certain machine operates or the age of rock formation. And when I find myself in a conversation with someone who is discussing such an interest or a detail, I find it difficult to do more than fain interest and attempt to follow their descriptions; particularly when they are using jargon I don’t understand. I should say that I don’t want it to seem that I am not interested in or am bored by them, I just happen to believe that each of us has a set of things that we enjoy and that interests us, and that we choose to spend our time and energy on. To some degree it is good that we have things that are for us and not for others; but none-the-less, I do find Mark’s ability to listen intently validating to others, and so it is a behavior that I am working to cultivate in myself.
However, there are some forms of conversation that I have no trouble giving every part of my attention to: namely, leveled and honest discourse. First, let me specify that I believe there are stark differences between discourse and debate. Debate, at least when I consider it in the pejorative, carries with it the connotation of competition. In debate there is generally a winning party and a losing party. Certainly there is room for competition in our lives, and to some, competition is necessary for them to find interest in participating in discourse. And while I prefer discourse over debate, there are times when debate is essential. Court rooms, legislative floors, and board rooms all require some level of debate, because generally the outcome of these faculties requires a definitive decision on what sentence, law, or strategy is going to be observed or implemented. In other words, our justice system has to find in favor of either the accuser or the defendant in order for anyone to ever be punished or set free, therefore debate must take place so that one party can be chosen over the other. What I often find frustrating about debate though, is the propensity for us to believe that there is one right and one wrong side of every debate, and the victor has proven their validity by winning the debate. As one of my professors put it, “Winning a debate is all about being able to ‘out-quote’ your opponent.” For some reason we seem to accept that if you can reference more experts, philosophers, or pie charts than your opponent, then you are correct and they are incorrect, which is obviously poor logic.
In contrast, discourse is a beautiful thing. It doesn’t require competition or immediate response. Discourse is where I feel comfortable being inquisitive, honest, and formative in my own beliefs and thoughts. I find that I open myself up to learning when I have the opportunity to play the devil’s advocate in a conversation. With the influx of catch phrases and blanket statements we experience on the day-to-day there are a number of things that we have come to believe simply due to the frequency of which we hear it. Therefore, every so often I attempt to probe these things a bit. When I disagree with someone about something or I haven’t yet made up my mind on a certain topic, I ask them to go into some detail about what exactly they believe and, if possible, why they believe it. Particularly in cases where I disagree with someone, I intentionally take a posture of first trying to understand what they actually believe to be true or right and see what in that I can relate to and understand. I remember a philosophy professor once telling me that you should hold out all your beliefs in an open hand. Be assertive and honest in them, but do not be afraid to change your mind on something when a better or a correct alternative comes along. Because of that, I have often changed my mind on some of the bigger things I believe, and I honestly believe I am better for it. Generally it is easy to convince someone to speak openly about something they feel strongly about, As long as you can keep them on topic and honest, there can come a good deal of understanding and knowledge.
I also appreciate the ability to test and share my own thoughts about any given subject. If by chance I feel very strongly about something, I’m eager to talk to someone with an opposing view to see if there is a fact or detail that I am missing on the issue that would change my mind about it. Nobody knows all there is to know about everything, but when I put myself in a posture to listen to someone else, I can often pick up new information that allows me to reassess the topic.
Because I learn well from discourse, I also enjoy instructing others through discourse. When I teach, I teach by asking questions that can’t be answered “yes” or “no.” For instance, my buddy Josh and I were talking politics the other night, and while moving from one subject to the next he mentioned his disapproval of the way we do social safety nets (specifically unemployment). He argued that that is not the government’s job, but rather the job of the church, family, and community (which I agree with, to a point), and stated that the government should be much more discriminatory when it comes to who they hand checks to (also a valid argument). He then said that they should “take measures such as drug screening before handing out money to them.” Knowing Josh and his compassionate and accommodating nature, I pressed him on this. I asked “surely you don’t think someone should not be given money to feed their children because they failed a drug test?” At first his response was if they failed a drug test they shouldn’t have the kids to begin with, but then his gracious heart seemed recognized that he doesn’t believe smoking pot is an offense worthy of losing your family over. I’m sure that I didn’t change his mind on the system at large, nor was I trying to, but I do think at very least this exchange gave him a moment where he got to stop and consider if that particular measure is one that he agrees with. I personally am quite grateful for the times in my life where I have had the chance to say something out loud only to realize that I wasn’t sure where it came from or even if it was something I actually believed at all. Or for times when someone called me on a particular action or argument that was inconsistent with my nature. It is moments like these that make these discussions worthwhile and altogether fascinating to me.