There are certain phrases which have vague or unknown meanings, and yet are frequently employed in speech. One such phrase, “doing life together,” was recently satirized by The Babylon Bee. Another one is a phrase that often precedes a thought: “I feel like.”
This latter one has been a great troubler of my own soul recently. I hear it so much that it has crept into my own colloquial vocabulary, and when I catch myself using it, I immediately repent in dust and ashes. Numerous conversations between myself and my wife have been abruptly interrupted by this devil. The other day I said something to the effect of, “I feel like I called so-and-so recently,” and immediately thought, “What does that even mean?”
Does one “feel like” they did something? Or did they do it? “Feel like” is a simile in need of completion. It’s correct use would be to describe an actual feeling, as in, “I feel like I’m dying,” when in severe pain. It most certainly doesn’t denote “thinking,” which is what I was doing and is how the booger of a phrase has come to be used. What I should have said was, “I think,” because that’s what I was doing. I was “thinking,” not “feeling like.”
Believing that I had sinned against the english language, I confessed to my wife that I had butchered an english verb, and she was gracious to forgive me (perhaps to get my mind back to the real topic at hand).
Now this is a minor infraction, I know. But it’s introductory to one of the real nuisances of late, which is the use of “conversations” and “dialogues.” These two words have been used as though they are twin Saviors, or John the Baptists who point to the Savior. Some cultural issue arises—racism, sexuality, immigration—and the commentators from every branch of the intelligentsia offer as a solution “more conversations,” or suggest the need for “more dialogues” as a means of arriving at solutions.
These words have been tossed around so much that a new translation of Ecclesiastes 12:12 might better read, “Of conversations and dialogues there is no end, and much of them is weariness to the flesh.”
What do we even mean when we say these things? When these “conversations” in public discourse actually occur, seldom are they between opponents. There are of course exceptions, but the exceptions prove the rule. Most often some group hosts an event with a panel full of people who have conversations about a topic they already agree on.
Take the many public “conversations” about racism recently. Rarely do we find a panel made up of both those who believe it’s a systemic problem and those who do not. Rarely do we find one made up of those who argue for the concept of white privilege and those who deny it. What we most often find is each camp, gathered together in their respective bubbles, armed with their respective stats and stories, who then affirm their own respective conclusions while offering solutions based on those conclusions, when in fact it is those very conclusions that is the idealogical source of the divisions.
The point: most of our “conversations” are just echo chambers. We don’t need more “conversations.” We don’t need more “dialogues.” What we need are actual debates. They can be formal, but also informal. They can have rules, or no rules at all. But the difference between a “debate” and a “conversation,” at least as of late, is that the debate has the opposing sides in the same room together. The conversation is isolated. The debate actually offers a broader perspective, whereas the conversation is built on many shared assumptions.
But most importantly, a debate—make that many debates—is designed to get to truth. Our endless conversations tend to assume the truth is known.
And that’s really the goal, is it not? Whatever the issue might be, we should want to know the truth of the matter first; and then from truth we derive implications and work for solutions.
What I see in much of the public discourse is a fundamental disagreement over what constitutes the truth. One side assumes they know it, while the other side does the same. They proceed to converse among one another, and the divide increases. Isolated “conversations,” whatever that word has come to mean, will only exacerbate the problems. What we need are more debates. Lots of them. Debates in public. Debates in private. And of course a willingness to get offended, for that is what debates will surely do. Nevertheless, as we see at the cross, offense is generally what is needed to arrive at truth.