Let’s face it: meaningful, balanced conversations, are hard to come by. How often have we watched a conversation on some disputed social issue dissolve into an emotional firestorm? If this isn’t obvious enough, just wait until the political campaigns start up again. Of course, serious issues deserve serious emotional commitment. But our problem isn’t a lack of emotional fortitude, it’s a lack of intellectual engagement; a lack of focus, really. Part of the danger for public discourse is our inability to focus on anything other than the emotional—we can’t pay attention for long enough to get past it.
Writing under a pseudonym, “Edward Schlosser” mourns the loss of public discourse in his article that swept the internet recently: I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me. In short, his students terrify him because they're way too emotionally sensitive. This quote stood out: “...focusing on …[identity concerns] too exclusively draws our attention so far inward that none of our analyses can lead to action.” Though he’s taken some well-deserved heat for his views, I think Schlosser is onto something.
When we turn our attention so far inwards, our ability to focus on things beyond our own emotions dies—and so does any chance for dialogue or reform. Those of you familiar with my content know that our minds are lousy at focusing on more than one thing at a time. Naturally, our minds are prone to take the path of least resistance.
In short, it’s easier to focus on rousing emotions than to analyze or think critically.
Which is why we feel manipulated when someone tries to communicate with us only using emotion, like commercials with sad-faced dogs or dramatic music.
So, the next time you want a good conversation, get outside yourself. Take your feelings into account, but remember that they're just that: feelings. Ask some questions. And try to pay attention--real attention--to the answers.
Marie Thérése Hébert & John Robert Thibault