The Ethics of Conversation

A service by Jennifer Brooks, ministerial intern
October 8, 2000--Paint Branch UU Church, Adelphi, MD

Introduction: Irony, Metaphor

It's rather ironic to cast the topic of conversation in the form of a sermon. Conversations usually involve dialogue, and this morning I'm going to do all the talking. But I hope what I have to say today will begin a conversation here at Paint Branch–a conversation about how we talk to one another in our homes, in our Paint Branch community, and in the larger community. I especially hope to stimulate thinking about the relationship between the ethics of private conversation and public policy decisionmaking. And I hope it doesn't escape you that the physical setting in this meeting-house is a metaphor for the impact of authority structures in public discouse–after all, I'm speaking to you from the "bully pulpit," and (at least for the moment) I get all the airtime.

What is Conversation?

In any conversation that deserves the name, says Harvard ethicist Ralph Potter, there must be "an equal and alternating balance of participation."

Conversation, the practice of turning a topic around and around as the opportunity to speak is passed from person to person within a circle, has been the principal medium of philosophical reflection.... The process of recasting one's thoughts by referring them to larger frameworks of meaning requires a highly individualized form of interaction. It is something that cannot happen when one person is doing all the talking. It cannot be done in mass meetings. It takes time. It even requires a form of architecture that permits people to meet on the same level and to be heard each by the other."

Potter concludes that most of America's institutions are not designed to encourage the kind of conversation essential to the creation of a civil discourse that enables negotiation rather than suppression of differences, that heals rather than wounds. A barrier to the creation of this sort of inclusive conversation is the omission of some voices in society–a society that is increasingly more diverse and more pluralistic.

Impact of Pluralism

America's been pluralistic since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock–but because Native Americans and women (and, later, imported African slaves) did not rate much mention in the intellectual discourse of the time, diversity in American society sometimes seems new. After all, we've experienced a visible civil rights movement in the 1960s; the entry of women into the white-collar workplace and the rising voice of feminism; the emergence of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transexuals into the mainstream of American life; and the newest wave of immigrants from Asia and Central America–a veritable explosion of diversity in race, religion, values, and cultural norms.

The values sometimes called "norms," which can seem to be self-evident and even transcendental principles, are increasingly revealed as culturally influenced assumptions about ethics and life. So-called "norms" aren't neutral. Instead, our cultural setting–our community's moral values–influence how we define problems and resolve issues.

How do people know what they know? The acquittal of Los Angeles police officers in the Rodney King beating triggered rioting among dienfranchised urban blacks who "knew" that the "racist cops" deliberately struck those 57 unconscionable blows. Not only was there a video of the beating, but it was consistent with the police brutality they knew about from painful experience. But the jury was drawn from a white, middle-class suburb where the police were commonly viewed as helpful and polite–the "good guys." The jurors saw the beating on videotape, too, but it was played frame by frame as defense lawyers explained and justified every blow as "self-defense." These two groups had different backgrounds, different life experiences, different facts. These differences inevitably shaped their vision of reality, and vision influences values.

In America today, the clash of competing norms underlying any discussion of public issues is increasingly more evident. Abortion, capital punishment, education financing, gay rights, flag desecration, prayer in schools, the teaching of evolution in schools–the conflicts around these policy debates are grounded in conflicting norms. Of course, some groups have more clout than others. But even groups whose norms have long been dominant are beginning to recognize that not everyone in America shares their values. Cultural diversity is becoming increasingly evident–and the result seems to be that people's positions are becoming more hardened: We're right, they're wrong. How can public debate move away from name-calling and toward a more thoughtful recognition and accomodation of diverse points of view? As Joan Rivers likes to say, "Can we talk?"

How We Talk

Whether people can talk together in a way that helps resolve differences depends mostly on how they talk. Over the last 500 years or so, writers commonly called "moralists" have mused on the "art" of conversation. Think of Miss Manners with a bit more emphasis on the ethics. Michel de Montaigne, quoted at the top of today's order of service, insisted on the need for "order" in conversation. His essay details the objectionable behaviors that prevent real communication: dominating the conversation; using abusive language or intimidating demeanor; wielding the power of social position to silence the other and advance one's own views; interrupting to contradict, disagree, or derail; not listening. In public discourse, the failure to listen to voices that are muted or silenced as a consequence of the speaker's social position can lead to poor decisionmaking, discord, and disaffection.

For example, in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, lawyer Cheryl Mills reports that 40 percent of black women said they would prefer "a politician who will keep campaign promises no matter what" over one who "will do what's right for the country, even if it means breaking a campaign promise." This point-of-view contradicts a long-accepted norm that our government representatives should work for the "greater good." Asked why in focus groups, the women made it clear that "when politicians talk about the 'greater good,' they usually don't include what's good for black Americans."

Differences in the information people have are compounded by style differences in the way people resolve moral issues. Moral reasoning style can be as great a barrier to real conversation as the differences in experience that shape what they "know." Harvard's Potter says that some people reason out ethical dilemmas by using cost-benefit analysis. Some rely on directives from a higher authority–God, the bible, the Q'ran. Some rely on their intuitions, their feelings. Some–Potter calls them "regular" thinkers–reason from principles to rules to decisions.

If people with roughly the same information-base talk past each other because they have different methods of resolving moral issues, then how much harder is it for people with different visions of reality to have a conversation? Yet conversation is essential if public policy is to accomodate differences in a multicultural society. "It is through conversation," Potter says, "that people can be engaged to do the type of moral reflection likely to raise the level of their philosophy rather than simply hardening it to withstand assaults."

I'm convinced that Potter's right: America does need to facilitate genuine conversation across the barriers that separate people. That's why I'm teaching the "Inclusive Conversation" course here at Paint Branch as part of our Learning Community program. I've had some experiences recently that helped me understand how necessary it is–but how difficult–to get people talking together in a meaningful way. Last year I took a class called "Thinking About Thinking." a Harvard course that includes undergraduates, law students, and divinity school students and is taught by three tenured professors, one from each area. The professors and all of the students were competent "regular" thinkers.

Reasoning from the principle that people should be given equal treatment under the law, the professors (who all were white men) speculated briefly about the advantages and disadvantages of doing away with racial preferences currently established in the legal system. One professors called for a student vote but immediately changed his mind, saying that surely everyone agreed that doing away with preferences would be best. To his obvious shock, a minor revolution broke out as students who usually remained silent in the class rose to contest his assumption. The remarks of these students, who represented a larger percentage of persons of color than usually took part in class discussions, made it clear that they experienced the world differently from the white professor.

In the students' world, persons of color face substantial hurdles to full participation in white-dominated society because white privilege has not been eradicated, and the embedded bias in ostensibly "colorblind" laws disadvantages people of color. Examples ranged from the quality of basic education to college admissions to hiring to mandatory sentencing for possession of illegal substances. Yes, they said, in theory it would be good not to have preferences, to treat everyone "equally"; but if without explicit acknowledgement the law and existing social life provide whites with advantages not equally available to non-whites, then eliminating legal provisions designed to counter white privilege would simply preserve embedded but unacknowledged white privilege.

Articulate, reasoned, principled in their style of argument, these students presented a vision of the world that differed from the professor's, without diverging from the professor's style of discourse. The students' remarks offered a different factual context within which to place the principle of "equal treatment under law." In their experience, formal equality of opportunity was not the same as actual equality of opportunity.

But afterwards, in a quiet but intense conversation among the dissenting students, the examples became more personal, revealing the pain caused by unequal treatment brutally imposed under the aegis of equality. The "Thinking About Thinking" class gave these students a window of opportunity to broaden the white professor's vision of justice in the world, but the more complete conversation occurred privately, when the group was smaller, the students felt safer, and the professor was gone. As the ethicists who study conversation have long observed, small groups of people who talk on an equal footing are most likely to talk together in a way that promotes the free exchange of ideas and the kind of reflection that encourages personal growth and the reconciliation of differences.

Henry Nelson Wieman, the great Unitarian Universalist theologian, described this sort of conversation as "creative interchange" that allows the formation and re-formation of values. Conversation allows transformation of a participant's initial values in a "process of reorganization".that generates new meanings and integrates them with the old, that gives each new event a wider range of reference, and molds the life of the human being into "a more deeply unified totality of meaning." Creative interchange with a different other, Wieman said, can transform the various parts and experiences of life into "a more richly inclusive whole." Conversation pursued in a creative spirit and with an open mind can change how people think, especially about each other. When the other is different–from a different background, of a different race, holding differenct values–there is an enhanced opportunity for transformation.

Public Conversation Needs Full Participation

Public conversation that will help to bridge the gaps between moral languages requires the contribution of people from many different backgrounds and experiences, as it is the systematic exclusion of those who lack the leisure, education, and wealth to participate that creates gaps in our information base. In addition, the power position of some (like the white professor) can make it difficult for those not in equal positions (like the students) to participate equally in the conversation. If the first student had not leapt to object to the professor's assumption, the students' contribution to the professor's context may not have occurred at all–and as it turned out, the professor's power position, the large-class setting, and the lack of time deprived the professor of a full account of the students' experiences. As Potter notes, "representatives of republican virtue have, for the most part, been eager to talk only to their own kind" while being willing "to spend much energy talking at and instructing more benighted souls."

The need for broad participation in public policymaking thus propels us towards social structures that foster wide interchange among people from different walks of life. In effect, the need to create an inclusive civil discourse becomes a moral necessity. But how is the opportunity to speak to be "passed from person to person within the circle"; how can values of inclusion, tolerance, and "individualized interaction" translate to a system that functions effectively in the public sphere, without mass meetings? The ethical stance of inclusive civil discourse may require what Kathleen Jones, in the reading for today, calls "compassionate authority," a non-hierarchical authority structure that seeks solidarity with others by compassionate attention to the differences in their experiences.

What would "compassionate authority" mean in the real world? Imagine a government that worked proactively to unearth the different visions of diverse groups in a multicultural society, share those visions, and acknowledge the reality of differences in life experiences. If deliberately and systematically brought into the sunlight and attended to with compassion, the experiences of the disenfranchised might begin to shape public policy-making. More effort might be directed to correcting the deficiencies in education, availability of health care, and housing that now diminish the opportunities and well-being of the poor. The so-called "greater good" might come to include the welfare of all people in society.

But democracy today has become mired in money politics, so that economic power frequently (if not always) translates into political power. If civil discourse is to be inclusive, participation cannot rise or fall based on economic well-being. How do we get from where we are to where we ought to be? The answer may be to work deliberately on creating inclusive private conversations that help people talk across their divisions. In particular, the creation of opportunities for the privileged to gain some insight into the experiences and visions of the disadvantaged would be a place to start.

Working Toward Solutions

If there is a moral to the story, it is that inclusive conversation at the personal level has the transformative potential to bring about inclusive discourse at the societal level. Granted, it's a long way from small conversations to new social arrangements. But the possibility is there. Ordinarily we leave conversation to happenstance; it typically occurs among friends, less often in educational or public settings. It may happen in religious settings, although many people seem to experience their place of worship as a place of received wisdom, of instruction rather than conversation. What is needed is a plan, sponsored by a few souls who believe in the power of inclusive conversation, that creates opportunities for inclusive conversation at the personal level.

One such effort is the "Conversation Project" in Miami, Florida, which draws together people of different ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds for informal conversations about their lives. In another effort focused on politicians, the Faith and Politics Institute, in Washington, D.C., deliberately invites members of Congress to participate in informal events with their political opponents, in settings that encourage conversation to flourish. Though participants may walk away from these events without a change in their political views, they frequently express greater trust and respect for the opposition–they begin to see the different other as human, sincere, and perhaps not entirely evil. Another initiative is the "Listening Post" project, which trains adult volunteers in listening skills so that they can sit with children in school lunchrooms and converse in a supportive way with the students who join them at their table. This intergenerational exchange is particularly valuable because experts on school violence say that the single most important factor in preventing the alienation that makes kids shoot each other is a postive relationship with an attentive, caring adult.

Consider the possibilities. Imagine using our churches and public buildings as settings for a national "conversation project." Students, factory workers, homemakers, CEOs, soccer moms, secretaries, firefighters, bus drivers, Sunday School teachers, bank tellers, doctors, people on welfare, lawyers, preachers, the homeless–there are many constituencies from which to draw a cross-section of people who are willing to engage in a little experimental conversation (a process reminiscent of jury deliberations). Some would have to be persuaded that the project was valuable; others would be delighted to have the chance. And even without any formal program, each of us, in our everyday lives and without much inconvenience, can begin to engage others in conversation accross the barriers that divide us. Talk a little, listen a lot, pay attention, and be alert to the opportunity to learn about differences that shape another person's vision of the world. Speak and listen with compassion; seek solidarity; be open to new ideas.

People may say, what is the sense of our small effort–but each one of our thoughts, words, and deeds is like a pebble cast into a pool that causes ripples that spread in all directions. Just start talking, and together our ripples can rock a few boats.

Sunday Sermons | Newsletter Columns
What is a PBUUC Sunday Service Like?
| Upcoming Sunday Services at PBUUC | Texts of Previous Sunday Sermons

Back to PBUUC's Home Page


Click here for more advanced search options.

If you are experiencing any technical problems with this page, click here.