22 novembre 2011

The Death of Conversation

Knowitallism, clashing egos, hipsterish oneupmanship and merciless conformism have killed the art of interesting conversation.

This is more than a laundry list of incriminating observations; it's a list of painful confessions.

I've only been around for about a quarter century, so I can't say that good conversation ever really enjoyed widespread success. People have always generally been afraid to genuinely act and speak differently from the crowd, and it normally takes at least one or two unique characters in order to have a good conversation. Conformity may have been more pronounced in the past, such as in the era that witnessed McCarthyism, but the obsession with fitting in, somewhere, anywhere, has actually never known as many devout followers as today. In our current culture, it does a pretty remarkable job of disguising itself, but it's there more than ever.

Though I'm guilty of sometimes having participated in the hysteria, it has often astonished me, as it has many, the human capacity for imposing a norm in every aspect of life, in every epoch of our history, in every modality of our collective existence. The slightest treason to any of our innumerable protocols, no matter how insignificant the transgression may be, will inspire in many people mistrust, hate, disgust and judgement.

The quasi-totality of human beings live their lives and operate on a vast collection of prejudices which we apply and consider in order to make decisions about ourselves and others. We do this even while chanting the mantras of tolerance, free speech, social liberalism and decrying the ignorance of such unpardonable practices as racism, chauvinism, homophobia, censorship and so on. People, even those who vehemently deny it, do not hesitate to make sweeping judgements based on what actually amount to frivolities.

This tells us that people aren't actually as interested in each other as they pretend to be. When they ask you things, it's usually only in order to get enough basic information about you in order to make their final judgement about who you are, what you're about and in what slot they can fit you in their mental dichotomy of the human species. When they listen to you speak, they're really only listening selectively for that very purpose, while at the same time thinking of what they are going to say next to prove to you that they are at least worthy of your attention, if not downright better than you. All this despite the fact that in public, no one will ever dare admit that he looks more highly upon himself than upon most others. They'll even publicly joke about their most superficial and insignificant faults.

Self-deprecation has become so fashionable in the last few decades that almost anyone who declares hate for himself is telling the most obvious of lies. In reality, though everyone is aware they have weaknesses, they have a funny way of actually adoring themselves. People who have a true sense of auto-derision are few and far between, and even those who do are not totally deprived of an ego. As for those who truly hate themselves, they are genuinely miserable people and they do not talk about it so flippantly. You will only find out about the depths of their self-hatred in their suicide notes.

People often complain about how rare it is to have an 'intelligent conversation'. This complaint says a lot. First of all, it means that the person who utters the phrase, we'll call him the speaker, finds himself to be quite intelligent. Okay, that's forgiveable. To vulgarly paraphrase Descartes, even the bitchiest people never whine about not having enough intelligence; it's the best-shared resource on earth. But this frequent complaint also presupposes that, besides the speaker, it takes at least one other clever individual in order for our famous 'intelligent conversation' to take place. This is where the problems really begin, because it is not enough that the speaker's ever-so-coveted interlocutor be objectively intelligent. No. He has to be intelligent according to the speaker. In this sense, "an intelligent person" is often simply a euphemism for "someone who thinks as I do".

Another problem peaks its head out when you realise that objectively intelligent people most commonly have quite large egos. When these egos meet in conversation, the competition can be ferocious. Pride and vanity have broken up years' long friendships and have even estranged families throughout human history, so you can imagine what these two elements can do among mere acquaintances in simple social situations or among fair-weather friends (the most common kind).

The result is that, despite the fact that everyone is ostensibly starved for intelligent conversation, this prayer for conversational enlightenment is rarely answered. Everyone is already convinced they know basically everything they need to know and that, on the off chance they might be unable to offer their schoolish point of view on a given subject during a predictable conversation at a soirée, they can quickly remedy the situation with a furtive Wikipedia search on their iPhone as they step into the kitchen to pour themselves another glass of merlot. Once a consensus is apparently reached in a group conversation, almost no one has the balls to contradict the crowd. To do so and be silenced by the group is to be shamed. To do so and prove the group wrong is to divorce from them forever, and everybody needs friends even if they are only fair-weather. Disagreement is reserved for when it can be expressed sanctimoniously among a majority of the like-minded.

Why such an obsession with being correct? Because one must be at least as educated, worldly, epicurean, cosmopolitan and, most importantly, authentic as his interlocutor and, if possible, even more so. That is the new mark of social status. It used to be money, which despite its imperfect and undemocratic nature, was at least an objective criteria. Now, though wealth and good looks are still obvious advantages, it's mostly one's projected image of renaissance personhood that will determine how far he or she can climb up the social ladder. Them's the rules.

And so we are all doomed to a life of mostly mediocre conversations, whether it's because they are actually objectively mediocre despite our enjoyment of them or lack thereof, or whether we only think they're mediocre because we don't agree with our interlocutors or because we are engaging in that zero-sum game of hipsterish oneupmanship. It has been said that it is never too late to turn your back on your prejudices, but when no one can see or will admit that they have any, that isn't a very practicable aphorism.

Allow me to reiterate what I said at the beginning of this article: this is as much a list of confessions as of accusations. It is aimed at no one in particular and it is simply the product of my own free time and delirium.

2 commentaires:

Thorny Rose a dit...

Well-written post. I would agree with what you say and struggle with it myself. To me, the superficiality of our existences and the fact finding games we play with each other under the guises of politesse and everyman well-adjustedness are equally a problem, yet no solution comes to mind. We are still animals, after all; yet dogs sniffing each others crotches and deer locking horns are totally natural behaviours. Me refusing to play the 20 questions game is either "rude" or "pretentious". Animals are unable to be these things.

I hate to say it, but you're a well-educated and sophisticated man, and a large part of the population is either too impatient, too busy, or too dumb to read your piece. So what do we do with that? How can we agree to ditch our prejudices and preconceived notions without descending into the straitjackets of relativism or sollipsism? I will "faire valoir" in closing that my convinctions at 17 hardly resemble the ones I then had at 20, 25, 27 and now at 28 I learn new things every day that change my beliefs. People who repeat the same truths to themselves their whole lives are destined for disillusion and disappointment

Fair Dominion a dit...

Very true. Thanks for reading. I need to set this thing up to be notified when someone makes a comment. I always end up seeing comments by accident.