“This is what has to change,” my brain whispered to me one morning. I had wakened up remembering a dinner the night before, when ten of us managed to eat and drink too much for a whole evening without ever discussing the Paris massacre. It was barely hours since the horror, yet not a word. Or was it only me who wanted to talk about it?
My tentative theory is that we sometimes do things like drinking too much or avoiding serious discussions, for the same reason: avoiding anger and conflict. We’re avoiding discomfort. So the prevailing etiquette in this particular dinner forum for decades has been that serious subject matter is not appropriate here. When it’s mostly family, the aim is entertainment.
Which is a shame, when I think about the brainpower that has eaten and drunk and laughed around our table. Not to mention the stimulating pleasure of a great discussion! And imagine if all that brainpower had applied itself to important issues affecting our everyday lives – like climate change, or whether to allow more Syrian refugees into the country, or why we should be happy to pay a higher tax rate for a quality national daycare program. Or why serious discussion arouses anger in a predictable few – and discomfort in others.
I wonder how many families across the country are similarly inclined? In our case, I think some of the underlying ‘family sub-culture’ is dominated by the insecure need to win with a “destroy the opposition” approach — and anxiety in the face of aggressiveness or hostility. And there are just conditioned reactions — which can be triggered by a word or even a mood.
These reactions have not been limited to family dinners. I’m remembering decades ago when I hosted a monthly discussion group at home. I can no longer remember the subjects we debated. What remains with me is those startling moments when all conversation stopped, because one person blurted out the kind of angry comment that attacks the messenger instead of the message. They may feel something like if I can make you seem like an idiot, you might shut up and stop making me feel threatened… Yet why should anyone have to feel intimidated at a dinner-table discussion?
These are attacks — not nourishing, not stimulating contributions. Some of the most intelligent people I know have done this. I see it as the by-product of families and schools that bend, fold, mutilate and staple us into something that fits their formula. Authoritarian cultures reinforce this behaviour.
I’ve found for the most part the people who chronically become angry in discussions have little concern for the impact of their outbursts. Instead, they are completely wrapped up in their own feelings. It’s as if they feel justified or entitled, somehow. I remember when one such participant left the house in a fit of anger, effectively ending the evening. I eventually ended the discussion groups, with the intention of starting again if I could ever figure out a way to overcome such destructive input. It’s been over 30 years, and I’m finally thinking seriously about it.
There was little emotion expressed around the dining table of my childhood; outbursts were unacceptable, so the tendency was for a family member to occasionally leave the room in a huff. What choice was there? As an adolescent, I was seen as the ‘neurotic one’, with my confused emotional expressions of frustration. Decades of alternative experiences, therapy and learning provided some insight about what was going on back then.
Because I believe passionately in the value and importance of intellectual discussion — that it’s essential in a democracy — I became preoccupied with understanding how and why this sort of thing happens.
With some people I’ve known, it’s been an obvious case of role modelling: parents who, for example, must be right even at the cost of their child’s curiosity or confidence – in too many cases long-since snuffed out. Sometimes, there’s a family culture of competition – extremely competitive parents encouraging the same in their children.
And then there is the critical-judgmental (often self-righteous) approach – at the root of much fear of public speaking. Of course teachers can have a similar affect, for which there is no excuse. And in my view, English-Canada tends to be a critical-judgmental ‘culture’ at the best of times. If you didn’t get it at home, don’t worry, you’ll pick it up somewhere. In none of these cases is “exploring an idea together” highly valued.
Sounds like I want to change a whole culture and I guess I do. After all, the widespread result seems to be that most people don’t say what they think if it’s at all controversial. So how can I learn from them, if they don’t express their point-of-view? Rather than argue with someone – as my European and French-Canadian friends have done – English-Canadians are more likely to do their ‘arguing’ behind our backs.
In my view avoiding or discouraging argument seriously damages democracy. For democracies to thrive, we citizens must be able to wonder if we’re wrong. We need to be curious about ideas different from our own and why people hold them. If I stick rigidly to my beliefs, and treat others as idiotic or dangerous for theirs, what impact will that have on our already weak democracy?