Can We Talk?

Repression is killing us. The refusal to have meaningful dialogue about what really matters. Politics, sex, religion? All of these should be on the menu for discussion at the dinner table, part of our communion with the people to whom we are presumably closest, those with whom we break bread. If not them, then who? I say there has never been more need to defy polite society and talk about these things openly. I say we should go further, and bring them up with the people next to us on buses, and elevators, or who live across the street. And not just politics or sex or religion, but all the other controversial subjects, the matters that touch us deeply, things of real human substance. Why?

There has never been so much to know, so much to consider before making decisions about so many critical issues—technology, terrorism, healthcare, the environment, overpopulation, the third world, genocide—the list is endless and growing. Yet we are failing to confront it. And in America, we are peculiarly unwilling to confront it, in deference to prescribed etiquette, in fear of offending someone we know, or don’t know well enough.

This reticence only aggravates the effects of the sound-bite culture in which we live. Information and news cascades over everyone at an ever-increasing rate and the voluminous data only accumulate. There is no way to keep up. Our knowledge of the world grows skeletal as an outline. No one talks or listens anymore; they merely trade bullet points. Yet the world remains a place of immediate risk whose need for wise and collaborative action only multiplies with each passing day.

Everyone on the planet faces this dilemma, though we as Americans have made it even harder on ourselves. Repression has always been the Achilles heel of our “free” society. The pilgrims escaping persecution engraved their puritanical obsessions in the DNA of our republic. See-no-evil-hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil is an unwritten article of our spiritual constitution. We have always courteously avoided sticky subjects with strangers, friends, our children, even our spouses, even ourselves. We have always viewed maverick candor with contempt. It’s safer to chart a course around troubled waters. The diversity that makes America so unique also tends to encourage us to stay mum; we live among people who are so different from us, the possibility for friction is much more real here than elsewhere.

But repression is killing us. By refusing to discuss what matters, we become passive recipients of impersonal data and ultimately bad news. We are treated with disdain by politicians who believe we can be led by distorted and oversimplified synopses, by slogans and slander, rather than reasoned analysis and consensus. Anyone with common sense must agree none of the challenges I mentioned earlier will submit to a trivial approach, yet we allow our society, and ultimately our world to be governed by such approaches. The inane and buffoonish discourse that has characterized Washington (and local government) for too long is merely a reflection in a funhouse mirror of our own superficial conversations.

It’s time to clear our throats and air out a few delicate subjects while waiting for dessert. It’s time to let ourselves be vulnerable, put voice to conviction, then listen to someone tell us just as passionately what we might least like to hear. It’s time to respond with wisdom rather than anger, seeking a greater understanding, and finally deciding together what must be done.


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