Can we talk less please?

[As a rule, i do not pass opinions or write on politics and religion. Therefore, i must state that what follows is not about politics -- nor is it an expression of a personal political preference.] 

A couple of days ago, an elected representative from a bastion of democracy spoke of ”consensual rape” during a talk in the floor of the State House. i am not sure what that phrase means. The lawmaker, of course, later tried to wiggle out by stating that he missed adding an ”or”* between consensual and rape. I still do not get it — owing, probably, to a lack of skill in obfuscation. 

In Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning: Holism, Truth, Interpretation, J E Malpas' book on the ideas of the philosopher and linguist, we have a view of "the principle of charity" from Donald. "To see too much unreason on the part of others is simply to undermine our ability to understand what it is they are so unreasonable about."*_ Donald suggests that, In dialogue, we suppress our tendency to assume that the other is stupid and senseless -- and seek to find the other's meaning. If we do not do this, we are likely to fail in understanding the other. This is a profound idea -- one that is essential to working our way past problems that divide us.

i have applied this Principle of Charity when i watched the politician backing the near total ban on abortion in Missouri. i have not succeeded so far in my attempts to understand him. However, one thing keeps running through my mind -- it would have been so much better if he had kept mum.

In this and so many other instances, i find that the tongue is increasingly getting thoughtless, and violent. The idea that freedom of expression is sacred has led us to a point where speech often runs miles ahead of the thinking that should shape it. We appear to have become a society of talkers. It is talk, talk everywhere -- with shockingly little thought. This is so because, as Madelyn Burley-Allen points out ( In Listening: The Forgotten Skill),  "we have equated speaking with mastery and power." 

i see three major consequences of this. 

The first is that, despite tremendous advances in knowledge, we are also creating a world (i borrow words from the course Calling Bullshit conducted by University of Washington academics Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West) ”with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence."

The second consequence is a world where listening becomes something that people attend trainings on but, find painful to practise. After all, what does one listen to when it is mostly bullshit and vitriolic noise going around. Some of us even find it necessary to attend silent retreats. We pay for places that will keep the prattle away. Ultimately, fatigued by incessant chatter, we become less vigilant. 

A third consequence is a diminishing of empathy. Full of our words, we care less and less about others. In everyday life, decency becomes a causality.

The Greek poet Hesiod wrote (Works and Days) that "the best treasure among people is that of a thrifty tongue."*_  Centuries later, Swami Ranganathananda touches on this in his commentary on Verse 12.19 of the Bhagavad Gita (Universal Message of the Bhagavad Gita). The wisest people, he says, are ”maunis” -- "A mauni is a 'thinking person'; naturally, he or she speaks less."

In his address (21st January 2019), on receiving the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Prize, David Attenborough told the world that ”The Garden of Eden is no more.” Cautioning us against slipping into paralytic gloom, he also said that we have ”a vast potential” to make healthy differences that will last thousands of years. 

As society, we face challenges, the kinds of which no civilisation before us has faced. If we are to solve these and make the planet better for our children, we can only do so in communion with other individuals. This requires that we shed our intoxication with speaking, and spend more time listening, thinking, learning and acting — in empathy with all life.  

On rising incivility

The Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year 2018, selected “to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year”, is “Toxic.

 It seems to me that the word “incivility” is a close competitor. A quick scan of Social Media conversations will provide ample evidence to back my view. Indeed, dialogues on every conceivable topic, this past year, seem to have descended to brawls of crude verbal abuse. It is hard to dispute the Georgetown Academic, Christine Porath’s, observation, in Mastering Civility, that “by all accounts incivility has….gotten worse”.

This does not bode well.

As work-outcomes become more and more results of collaboration, incivility has an economic cost. A joint research initiated by Thunderbird Professor Christine Pearson and Christine Porath to determine early indicators of workplace homicide turned up the revealing fact that stress resulting from incivility costs US companies about USD 300 billion a year — yes, you read that figure right — USD 300 billion! In their book chronicling this research, The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It, they hope that readers draw one vital learning for themselves and for their organizations — “There are costs for bad behaviour.”

There is, of course, the cost paid by people. The Stanford Professor, Robert Sutton, based on studies of incivility and rudeness, makes the point that they “undermine a victim’s mental and physical health for days or weeks” with abusers wrecking “their target’s physical and mental health.”

Incivility is not really the preserve of “others”. The British Psychological Society’s essay of conclusions drawing from various research studies points to negative traits that each of us are likely to have. Most of us could be churlish.. Add to this the findings of research on trolling that indicates that most of us succumb to “herding behaviour” — in other words, social and psychological environmental factors are such that each of us is inclined to misbehave. The bare fact of the matter is that each of us has the potential to be nasty. Each of us is also likely to mirror what goes on around us — the nastier things get, the nastier we are likely to be.

As the untrammelled freedom offered by the Net amplifies the spread of incivility, it is important for each of us to be on guard. Each of us could, under provocation, stoop and spread the contagion. However, it is also a fact that our brain is plastic. There is ample evidence that we are capable of “rising above” some of our base tendencies. Indeed, one of the central messages of Stanford Neuroscience Professor Robert Sapolsky’s book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, is that human beings can change — society can change. If we seek a world that is pleasant to live in, we would do well to not “pay it forward” when it comes to incivility.

At its core, civility is more than good manners or behavioural etiquette. It is about communicating and behaving in ways that demonstrate empathy, and respect for others. As the world gets more complicated — weaved together owing to various factors such as Technology and Globalization but torn apart owing to Inequities and Culture — we would do well to acknowledge that people see with multiple lenses and, therefore, world-views will collide. The ability to include others in the journey as companions (rather than see them as nuisances) is a vital trait for each of us to cultivate. Christine Porath sums it memorably in Mastering Civility.

“In the end it’s relationships that truly matter, and civility is the foundation of relationships….Whatever your age or circumstance, you can master civility. So what are you doing today to connect with others? What kind of legacy are you leaving? Are you lifting people up or holding them down?

In each moment we get to choose who we want to be.

Who do you want to be?”