On Real Conversations

One of the wonderful things about East Bay Booksellers is that the books they put on display by the cash register tend to be small press gems rather than those books you buy as a gift because they’re “cute” that no one ever reads.

Case in point: a book called Anarchy—In a Manner of Speaking, which is a set of conversations by the late (and great) David Graeber with Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, Nika Dubrovsky, and Assia Turquier-Zauberman.

I was in the store picking up something else, saw it for the third time, and decided I needed to have it. I came home and started reading and bam! There on the second page was something that I needed to know, even though I hadn’t realized it: the importance of dialogue — real dialogue — among people in both understanding the world and creating better systems.

Graeber ties anarchist practice to dialogue, in particular “a certain principle of dialogue.” He explains:

[T]here’s a lot of attention paid to learning how to make pragmatic, cooperative decisions with people who have fundamentally different understandings of the world, without actually trying to convert them to your particular point of view.

That alone connected two discrete parts of my life: developing co-ops and training in Aikido. In both of those activities, it is vital to have that kind of dialogue to accomplish anything.

In Aikido, of course, we have that dialogue physically, but it is the same thing. Your partner attacks and you have an exchange that will resolve the situation. If you handle it well, the situation shifts without harm to either party.

I’ve found over the years that bullying people until they agree to your point of view never works. Even if you get agreement in the short term, there’s a good chance of losing it. In Aikido, if you try to force a solution, you’re not going to get anywhere.

Graeber goes on to say:

It’s always struck me as interesting that in the ancient world, whether in India, China, or Greece, philosophy was written almost exclusively in the form of dialogue …. Thought, self-reflective consciousness, that which we tend to see as making us truly human—was assumed to be collective (political) or dyadic, but something that almost by definition couldn’t be done all by yourself.

He then points out that Christian thought moved away from that and says “Descartes completely turns things around by starting with the self-conscious individual, and only then asking how that individual can have any kind of communicative relation with anyone else.” He labels that “the basis of all subsequent European philosophy” and then calls that approach “absurd.”

He argues that neuroscience has shown that “real thought is almost entirely dialogic,” even though cognitive scientists don’t discuss conversation. According to him (and alas, this nice small book does not have footnotes, so I cannot track this to the research that demonstrated it, although I have no doubt that Graeber could and did), current neuroscience shows that the “‘window of consciousness’—that time when most of us actually are full self-aware, self-reflective beings—is rare and brief; it averages around maybe seven seconds.”

And then he says: “Unless, of course, you’re talking to someone else.” Not that you can’t talk to others without paying full attention, “but if you’re really interested and engaged with someone else you can maintain it for hours.”

He concludes that discussion with this: “[M]ost self-aware thought takes place at exactly the moment when the boundaries of the self are least clear.”

And then Assia Turquier-Zauberman observes: “[W]hen it isn’t clear whose mind is which.”

It occurs to me that I have spent my whole life looking for those conversations.

That’s why I go to science fiction conventions. It’s not the panels or the readings. It’s not even to promote books (though I should promote books). It’s the finding of people with whom to have intense conversations about ideas that matter.

I find those people by going to panels and readings, which is why the convention set up is so important. But the real conversations happen over drinks in a bar somewhere or sitting around in whatever space we can find after the parties ended and the bars closed.

I also found those conversations in Aikido, both on and off the mat. Morning class in the DC dojo gave me plenty of scope for communicating physically with others and drinking coffee with my fellow students  after class opened all kinds of other doors.

These days the best conversations happen on Zoom, certainly through my book club and writers group and especially in my online meetings with other Aikido folk to discuss the philosophical underpinnings of that path.

While you can have superficial conversations in all those places, and frequently do, they provide the opportunity for more.

There aren’t enough opportunities for those dialogues in my life. This is partly because my own interests are so eclectic; it is hard for me to narrow down the possible places because almost anything might strike me as important and related to something else.

But it’s also because few places in society are set up so that these conversations happen. College is one such place, which is probably why I loved undergraduate school.

I live in a wonderful neighborhood, but the friends with whom I know I can have such conversations do not live next door. Some of them don’t even live on the same continent, much less in the same city or state or even country.

Our lives tend to focus around our families and maybe a few friends who are nearby. Maybe we’re involved in some groups, but groups that make this kind of dialogue happen in an ad hoc manner aren’t easily available.

Now that I’ve put the right words to what I’m looking for, though, I’m going to see what I can do about finding and even creating more spaces where real dialogue can happen.

I need this kind of dialogue to feed my soul, but we also need it to change the world.

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