If there is a line that I’ve quoted more than any other over the years, it is this one from Rebecca West: “There is no such thing as conversation. It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all.” (It took me a long time to track down that original statement — before I did I inadvertently paraphrased it.) For as far back as I can remember, I have been troubled by the pervasiveness in human encounters of misunderstandings, cross purposes, inaccurate assumptions — by the extraordinarily wide range of ways in which we manage to avoid having meaningful and fruitful interactions.
I do not believe that if we just eliminate misunderstandings we will all get along wonderfully, world without end, kumbaya. Not at all. It may be that when we eliminate misunderstandings we will discover that our conflicts are even deeper than we had previously assumed. But should that discovery happen we would at least be having the right debates — debates about actual as opposed to imagined differences.
Because this tendency towards fake conversation, intersecting monologues, has been such a long-standing concern of mine, much of my work as a teacher and writer has been devoted to addressing it. (I have tried to do this while also maintaining my work on the religious dimensions of modern British literature, which has … not been easy, since the two lines of interest do not always overlap — though in my forthcoming book they do, thanks be to God.) I have sought to explore the consequences for our social order of human beings’ fallenness (that’s what my book on original sin is about) and finitude, our being necessarily limited in scope through having only one person’s experience and ability (that’s what much of How to Think is about, and also my recent essay on “ecclesial plurality”). I have sought to describe the ways that the distinctive technological environment of our current social order makes certain kinds of pseudo-conversation inevitable and more genuinely dialogical encounters almost impossible — which leads me to, among other things, advocacy for the open web, as in this recent essay.
In short, I am interested in the contexts within which our conversations take place: those intrinsic to our human condition, those specific to a particular culture with a particular ideology, those conditioned and directed by technology. And — this is the heart of the matter — I do all this because I know as a Christian that I am commanded to love my neighbor as myself, and I want to promote the possibility of such love as widely as possible, for myself and others.
So I spend most of my energy as a writer and teacher not in stating and defending positions on The Issues Of The Day, but rather in striving to cultivate circumstances under which there can be neighborly conversations about such issues, conversations that have at least a chance of being fruitful. I have views on many of The Issues Of The Day, of course, and often quite strong convictions, but there’s little point in announcing them until the conditions are created in which we can hear one another, and respond to one another, humanely. (That doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes succumb to the temptation to weigh in, though; not does it prevent me from doing so in less than loving ways.)
I concluded my essay “Wokeness and Myth on Campus” with these words:
The question we must then ask is: Can our colleges and universities be places in which this endless clashing may be accommodated, and the resulting cultural momentum be encouraged, made fruitful? I have my doubts. But if this conflict is to be fruitful, or even just bearable, it will happen only if we understand the cognitive constraints under which we all labor, and only if we acknowledge the reality of life within the mythical core, with all its experiences of defilement and desecration. Cheap talk about “critical thinking” and “the free exchange of ideas” is clearly no longer adequate to the challenges we face.
In that essay I don’t argue that student protestors are right or that they are wrong; rather, I try to identify and describe how they think, so that allies and critics alike can engage with them more constructively, so that there can be fewer intersecting monologues.
Similarly, in that essay on the open web and “a small ethics towards the future” I write,
To the extent that people accommodate themselves to the faceless inflexibility of platforms, they will become less and less capable of seeing the virtues of institutions, on any scale. One consequence of that accommodation will be an increasing impatience with representative democracy, and an accompanying desire to replace political institutions with platform-based decision making: referendums and plebiscites, conducted at as high a level as possible (national, or in the case of the European Union, transnational). Among other things, these trends will bring, in turn, the exploitation of communities and natural resources by people who will never see or know anything about what they are exploiting. The scope of local action will therefore be diminished, and will come under increasing threat of what we might call, borrowing a phrase from Einstein, spooky action at a distance. This is how nation-states become wholly owned subsidiaries of transnational corporations. This is how Buy-n-Large happens.
And of course much of my writing on this blog fits the same general description. I hope you see the pattern.
I don’t regret any of this work — it was on my heart and I had to deal with that somehow — but if you look at it objectively it is hard to imagine a more colossal waste of time. I just try to take comfort in the words of a Nobel Prize-winning poet:
Life is sad, life is a bust
All you can do is do what you must
You do what you must do, and you do it well
I’d do it for you, honey baby can’t you tell?
I appreciate your remarks on the virtues of institutions, though institutions may be mixed and messy. With respect to democracy in particular, those virtues are difficult to observe and require commitment even in the face of ongoing failure or irrelevance. For instance, it’s quite easy to rail wittily against the democracy as an abject failure. H.L. Mencken: As democracy is perfected, the office [the presidency] represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
I’ve read more than a few cries in the wilderness the past couple years wondering “why bother?” to engage in apparently futile action, such as dialogue with the opposition (however that may be construed). Outcomes may not be irrelevant to the activity undertaken, but outcomes are often impossible to observe, especially in the short term. One then relies on commitment to doing the right thing (however that may be construed) in the face of such irrelevance. Indeed, some feel compelled to do so. The alternative is worse.
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