Save Breath to Cool Porridge

We have an idea – don’t we? – that discussion is always a good thing, that more of it will work things out, that if we discuss our differences long enough and throughly enough, sooner or later we’ll resolve them. But of course that’s not true, it can’t be true – not on this planet, with this species. Consider a thought experiment. The lamb and the lion can speak, and can speak the same language. They sit down to discuss their differences. Would that resolve them?

I once heard Amos Oz say much the same thing, chatting on a local radio station (then I went to the bookstore where he was appearing, and got a stack of books signed). Americans think if only Israelis and Palestinians would sit down over coffee and really talk, they would work it out. But Oz thought it would just never be that easy – and this was several years ago.

And even in less urgent matters than who eats and who is eaten or who gets this territory, discussion doesn’t always work – ‘work’ in the sense of getting anywhere, accomplishing anything, giving both sides a better clearer more grounded and fact-based understanding of each other’s views, or giving each side new ideas, or finding some common ground, or agreeing to differ but with a better grasp of each other’s premises. As a matter of fact discussion sometimes merely makes things worse. Phil Mole talks about this in his article on why it can be so frustrating to argue with religious believers, and it applies to other kinds of believers too. Often the parties just talk past each other; often they both talk past each other and irritate each other. Sometimes one party grapples and the other party refuses. One party does its best to talk about the central issues in clear precise language and avoiding non sequiturs, while the other party does nothing but evade and elude and wriggle away: changing the subject, translating what has been said into what has not been said, ignoring corrections and clarifications, obfuscating, introducing irrelevancies, non sequituring. If the party of evasion is possessed of brilliant rhetorical and linguistic poetic literary gifts, the conversation may be aesthetically rewarding, witty, a literary or dramatic pleasure, but it won’t be successful as a discussion of the ideas in question.

So it seems reasonable to admit that some discussions are just a waste of time and effort. Life is short, time is finite, there is much to do, the soup is about to burn, so unless one actually enjoys arguments that don’t go anywhere, there is not a lot of reason to engage in them.

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