Moving Forward in Discussions

This week of 2/15/09 on NPR (search online for “Holder’s ‘Cowards’ Comments Examined“(?)), there was a distinct part of the exchange in which the two people were discussing one of their speeches or essays. One person was critical, saying that he perceived that the writing’s focus on negative aspects of race-related discussions today was negating to all of the progress that has been made in the past few decades, that the focus ignored how different and positive it is for youth today compared to youth of thirty years ago. The author of the writing returned that he fully understood all of the progress that had been made as mentioned by the first person, but that that was not the topic of his writing – what was the topic were things that needed to be faced next. So the first person felt that, by its omission, it was being negated and overlooked. But here we have the author himself telling us he wasn’t doing that. Furthermore, we are given a description of his perspective and background which lend credibility – credibility that we are hearing the truth.

(Admittedly taking his side, here,) how is he supposed to compose a speech/essay that is concise and to the point, without digressing on a related but different tangent only to placate people with certain preconceptions and preoccupations? If we say that his essay has as a primary objective to reach everyone, including those who need placating, perhaps he in fact does need to spend some time on the digression. After all, his composition doesn’t come into this world into a vacuum, but into various contexts, which includes various audiences and respective interpretations. Perhaps, at the very least, a digression expressing what the goal of the composition is and what it consciously avoids would be valuable. On the other hand, we could say it’s the onus of the audience to deal with their own preoccupations and preconceptions. If they take in a composition (or read a book, see a movie, hear something from someone, etc.) and receive something that the creator never intended, shouldn’t they question how much was due to their own “junk”? In fact, isn’t the individual who is making the mis/re-interpretation the best person to have insight of what is happening to lead him to such an interpretation at all? And finally, since this is about communication, the format is relevant. If it is a conversation between two people, the speaker has the opportunity to get a sense of how the listener is receiving the words, and accordingly tweak what is being said. If it is an essay that has been completed, then the author does not have such an opportunity. The author’s skill in “pre-reading” the potential audiences’ reception may become apparent. Also, the audience may need to give the author the benefit of the doubt about what the author is striving to convey, precisely because they do not have the opportunity to hear the author’s clarifications.

In discussions about practitioners of aikido of different aspirations, the “moving forward” often becomes derailed by similar divergences of views and interpretations [1][2]. The people who have the knee jerk reactions of the defensive sort when they hear someone calling them or implying that they are “hobbyists”, evidently associate the idea of doing something as a hobby with doing something with little worth, little meaning, little benefit, little beauty, etc. Even if we consider something most people can probably grasp as a hobby, such as building birdhouses, tending a garden, or restoring old cars – for all of these things we can probably see the person doing it not as a professional yet investing much time, effort, energy, and money, attaining pleasure, peace, meaning, etc. and even bringing joy and benefit to others. How is it that “it’s a hobby” becomes “just a hobby”? Can the person hearing “just” acknowledge that that is what their mind is inclined to attach? Also, can such a person come up with an alternative word that is somehow more placating or satisfying? Would it help to assign a different word to those who are obviously more serious/invested? “Amateur”? “Apprentice”?

Without acknowledging and accounting for the objective of statements, conversations, terminology, and for the perspectives and formats of communication, then the discussions can’t move forward. And moving forward is inevitably going to include encountering some unsavory topics. In the case of race, it could include the topic of how to practically address differently different people’s socioeconomic positions as it related to their history. In the case of aikido, it could be about topics such as how teachers should be expected to treat different students differently, and what kind of discriminating treatment students should expect and tolerate. Recognizing that our discussion isn’t moving forward, assessing why it is so, and settling on some basic common ground are essential pieces of a complicated discussion. Without these pieces, it could be like talking about traveling together to the other side of the planet but not agreeing whether to start eastward or westward; like agreeing to travel some place relaxing or exciting but not agreeing where that is and even presuming the other person is thinking the same thing as oneself; like planning a trip somewhere with someone, with one person intending to stay for a few days and another for months, and packing the car accordingly.

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