Lately I have been engaging with some of the ideas of the intellectual dark web. Although I don't agree with all of what all the members are arguing, I do agree with one premise that seems to be the only thing the group has in common: it is of the absolute utmost importance (both personally and socially) to cultivate the skill to discuss with others. There a couple of components to this I'd like to get in writing, because they seem to be at the core of so many of the struggles I've seen in relationships and society lately.
The first is something I've mentioned before and then censored. I will put it more obscurely here: discussion, or ongoing talking, negotiating, compromising, empathizing, is absolutely essential for any healthy relationship (or any relationship that is more than the empty shell of superficiality). Erich Fromm (who wrote the best book ever written on love) describes a cultural phenomenon that I have experienced in droves lately:
One other frequent error must be mentioned here. The illusion, namely, that love means necessarily the absence of conflict...the 'conflicts' of most people are actually attempts to avoid the real conflicts. They are disagreements on minor or superficial matters which by their very nature do not lend themselves to clarification or solution. Real conflicts between two people, those which do not serve to cover up or project, but which are experienced at the deep level of inner reality to which they belong, are not destructive. They lead to clarification, they produce a catharsis from which both persons emerge with more knowledge and more strength.
Discussion is basically ongoing conflict. It is evolution. It is growth. If we accept as a premise that (according to the dictionary) discussion is talking about a topic in detail, taking into account different ideas and opinions, then discussion is, according to Fromm, a necessary part of any relationship. Two people are never exactly the same, even husband and wife or mother and child, and discussion is the negotiation of differences to find peaceful resolution using empathy, understanding, and putting aside one's ego.
In my personal experience lately, I have not been given the opportunity to discuss contentious issues in certain relationships. Grown adults have repeatedly refused to speak with me in person or on the phone, resorting to avoidance or only allowing text-based conversations. Being robbed of a voice, just simply not being invited to discuss, is akin to the death of that relationship. If there is no space for discussion, if it is either overtly or covertly banned (through social norms), or if one partner in a relationship is not invited to discuss, that relationship is an empty, superficial shell. Or worse, if people don't discuss they are robbed of the chance for empathy toward one another, and the relationship becomes entirely antagonistic. According to many members of in intellectual dark web, this basic fact is driving the tribalistic tendencies that is dividing our society into ever sharper and more brutal opposition to one another. This lack of discussion is dangerous, because it is the kind of behavior that leads to genocides (this is not hyperbole).
Now, what is happening in a few of my personal relationships is the worst case scenario when discussion is not valued. These relationships might be a lost cause, unless there were a total reversal in behavior. But, let's say, we have two people who do want to at least talk to one another, but are not practiced in the art of discussion. The second point I want to make is that discussion is an art and a skill. It is not something you just decide to do when you are feeling particularly magnanimous. It is something you must work on repeatedly to get good at it. And I want to be clear: I think discussion is essential not just for close, personal relationships, but for all relationships from spouse, children to co-workers to neighbors.
Some members of the intellectual dark web, like Jordan Peterson, make the claim that we have for the better part of a century been modeled a form of 'discussion' on media with low bandwidth, how to make points very quickly (the 30 second sound byte), and to 'win' the discussion as efficiently as possible. This is more akin to a high school debate, or even more limited than one in the usual time each point is given (imagine panels on CNN with 15 contributors all trying to speak the loudest). What kind of lesson are we learning from this kind of 'discussion?' We are learning to speak as superficially as possible and to 'win' at all costs. We are learning how to get the best quip, earning the 'gotcha' moment or 'destroying' our opponent (as the titles of so many YouTube clips demonstrate).
In an ideal discussion there is no winner or loser, both parties win by becoming closer, growing in understanding, and feeling the efficacy of having overcome the very difficult problem of attempting to understand another human being, of connecting across differences. One thing that is a common social norm in my family of origin (my parents and siblings) is that my family attempts to see others' point of view to a fault. I often see my family (myself included) giving up some (often too much) ground when we have been wronged, just because we are attempting to see the humanity in others and show our humanity and our ultimate desire for resolution. This happens when only one side of the relationship is actually engaging in discussion and the other is engaging in debate and trying to win. One person walks away feeling like they've won, the other person (showing their humanity) has been taken advantage of. When both parties aren't engaged in true discussion, the truth is they both lose.
So, now let's take the ideal example of someone who is engaging you in what they think is a discussion. They are speaking with you in detail, and it is on differing opinions. I think it needs to go beyond this dictionary definition of an exchanging of points. It has to have two further components to be successful: 1. Each person has to actually listen to the other person's points and fully consider them as if they could be true and 2. Each person has to be able to make mistakes and stumble through their own ideas through the act of discussion, and they need to be allowed to evolve during the course of the conversation.
This is the kind of model of discussion I got in the college classroom at the University of Chicago. A topic was introduced and the instructor and the students simply talked about it. We all learned through talking, and we all gave one another the respect of considering if the other person's ideas/argument had something to teach us or could shed light on our own thoughts somehow.
So, what does this mean for me personally? A couple of things. First, I have been practicing the art of discussion in my daily life. In my relationship with Patrick it is something I've been inadvertently practicing for years, but am doing more explicitly now. I am also practicing it with my kids, friends and neighbors. I am learning to listen without just filling my mind with the next point I want to make.
I am learning that talking for a long time, all the time, is the only way for deep relationships to grow. The ideal discussion involves talking over the course of hours, not only giving a topic a few minutes of your time. I am learning to negotiate and compromise and to accept all points, intellectual alongside emotional and spiritual, as valid points from which to enter into a discussion. That is, if someone comes to me irrationally scared or mad or sad, it is ok that their emotion is the main consideration, even if it is irrational. It is ok to discuss emotions, not just debate intellectual points. And, I am attempting to simply lead by example by discussing more with others.
I am talking a lot (big surprise), and I know engaging people in discussion is annoying them to some extent because it is hard to work to engage in discussion and to be emotionally and intellectually present. I know many people would rather engage in superficial talk that is actually building antagonistic relationships. I know bringing up difficulties is a buzzkill for someone looking to relax, physically and intellectually. I know people would rather take the lazy route of repeating sound bytes they've heard instead of engaging one another. But I'll be damned if I give into that way of communication that is currently destroying our world and has the ability to do a lot more harm if left status quo (there is no space to detail this here, but if you start looking at podcasts with members of the intellectual dark web you'll see plenty of evidence from people across the political spectrum).
So, if you see me, get ready for a discussion.