The Demise of Respectful Dialogue

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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Photo by permission of Mara Rothman @ mararothman.com

Just a cursory glimpse of current political discourse gives us a blueprint of how not to communicate. You would think it would be common knowledge that polarizing bashing matches that spew contempt and hatred do not comprise effective communication, or for that matter a baseline for relational decency. Nevertheless, berating and shaming is not just a popular trend amongst the political elite, it has become a favored approach amongst people in general.

In fact, research indicates that disrespect and incivility are on the rise. And sadly, one very recent study by Portland State University underscores the idea that the more we see and experience people being disrespectful, the more likely we are to behave disrespectfully too.” (Forbes, Sept. 2021)

It’s interesting to note that accompanying this unfortunate uptick in aggression is censorship. This correlation makes me consider how the restriction of free speech may be paradoxically responsible for igniting current incendiary interpersonal dynamics. After all, censorship breeds prejudice as it is upheld through the threat of power and the inducing of fear. It inhibits our perspective and closes us off from taking in ideas that are considered socially taboo. Furthermore, attempts to repress ‘dangerous ideas’ spotlight those very ideas being censored, thus igniting divisive debate and the cementing of biases.

Indeed, bit by bit we are accommodating statutes that circumscribe freedom of speech and silence any form of expression that deviates from prescriptive narratives. Even while the Biden administration recently moved to shut down the websites of 33 foreign media outlets, it was spun as security protection, not an obvious attack on the 1st amendment.

Now with six corporations controlling 90 percent of media outlets in the U.S. (AT&T, CBS, Comcast, Disney, News Corp and Viacom) it’s not surprising that the press has acclimated to the expectations of these corporatized media giants. Being that conglomerate ownership creates circumstances in which censorship occurs, news media has largely morphed into public relations and partisan promotion strategies. The tragic plight of Julian Assange and the gradual eradication of investigative journalism is exemplary of this phenomenon.

Moreover, the infringement on private communication continues to take on new meaning as government officials are working directly with Facebook to limit the spread of ‘disinformation,’ while euphemistically branding censorship as managing domestic terrorism.

Capitalizing on survival fears the government sponsored corporatized media bans, persecutes, and censors those who deviate from popular opinion. Oppositional views are vilified, in effect muzzling those who question popular narratives. The masses are led to vehemently ascribe to us-them dichotomies and measure up to progressive purity test mandates so as to not land on the denounced side of the fence.

Regrettably, we are witnessing many enthusiastically taking the bait and participating in random emotionally charged exchanges that culminate in a mob mentality and a snitch culture. Aggressive social norms have taken hold as hateful communication infiltrates throngs of followers. Righteous indignation usurps the possibility of rational discourse, especially when group shaming is exalted as a noble feat.

For the ‘greater good’ many collectively ascribe to the notion that it’s virtuous to assault those who possess views that deviate from what is considered ‘moral’ and correct. Coupled with ‘flagging content,’ a vehemently enforced PC lexicon and cancelling people and anything considered a controversial view, acrimonious communication has become standard procedure. Throw intermittent lockdown measures and social isolation into the mix and rancor directed towards one another is a logical outcome.

Hence, silencing expression does not mean that thoughts or feelings cease to exist. To the contrary, where prohibited thoughts go and how they get expressed should concern us all, as the collective over-reliance on primitive ego defenses is not a good thing. When the ego consistently repudiates uncomfortable information, consciousness has dwindled to a superficial one-dimensional interpretation of reality. We lose perspective and the capacity to think critically.

In due course, the habituated reliance on repression causes unwanted feelings, forbidden from consciousness to go underground where they fester and germinate. Seeking a circuitous means of expression these buried feelings inevitably erupt. The magnitude of the eruption or expression of what is denied is largely predicated on the degree of repression employed.

Essentially, our general well-being is negatively impacted by the inhibition of thinking and feeling. We implode and explode, evincing righteous opposition and rampant cruelty. This habituated pattern of shutting down potential discourse seeps into our personal lives, corrupting our day-to-day interactions and our capacity to hold a space for differing perspectives. As a result, the capacity to clearly and respectfully communicate has rapidly declined. Acrimonious backlash has replaced meaningful dialogue.

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For those of us who have any sort of exposure on blogging platforms or social media, the random ruthlessness of others is accepted as an unfortunate part of the terrain. I certainly have had the misfortune of encountering cyber trolls who leave disparaging, malicious comments.

Unfortunately, gratification through cyber-bullying and violent video gaming (Greitemeyer, 2015) is a common occurrence, further substantiated by a study conducted in 2017 (Sest & March) which revealed that a combination of traits of sadism and psychopathy are typical of internet trolls. Clearly, the sadistic thrill achieved when targeting someone for any arbitrary reason incites trolls to launch provocative rhetoric and virtual assaults. Needless to say, this sort of behavior is not limited to social media platforms.

A new report from the Government Accountability Office reveals that bullying, cyberbullying, harassment, hate speech, hate crimes, physical attacks, rape, sexual assault and victimization are on the rise in the country’s public school system.

Given this tragic predicament, I am led to question if we can stop cannibalizing each other long enough to fix this problem. More importantly, do we even want to?

Greek philosopher Socrates conveyed, “we cannot live better than in seeking to become better.”

To become a better person requires the willingness to relinquish stultifying patterns and cut through illusions and delusions in order to honestly know oneself. It is only with humility, empathy and consciousness can one evolve.

Since relational responsibility and accountability matter to those invested in personal growth, possessing the desire and the mettle to truly know oneself is foundational to consciously see and understanding beyond the self.

One must either be or at least aspire to be a self-realized fully formed adult who views operating from a place of decency and decorum as a moral imperative. This value is an essential prerequisite to successful and effective communication.

To the contrary, the pervasive mindset of those who scoff at notions of self-realization is that transactional motivations take precedence over how actions impact others. Accordingly, survival needs, as opposed to moral conduct, are the driving force behind one’s choices. Ethical relational standards are largely considered superfluous. For this individual intentions are instrumental and egocentric. Accordingly, their relational intentions are motivated by a practical means to satisfy personal desires, as opposed to values. Under these conditions, the end always justifies the means.

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg and cognitive theorist Jean Piaget suggest that when the personality is entrenched in the self to the exclusion of others then one is functioning at the pre-operational stage (2 to 7 years old) of development. Chronological adults who are stuck in the pre-operational stage of development cannot see beyond their own perspective. Their ability to understand other peoples’ views, situations, and problems is constrained by a self-centered focus. This intractable posturing makes it impossible to appreciate that we do not all interpret the world in the same way.

Sadly, this stance pretty much describes a vast demographic of folks who are driven by instrumental motivations and are not adequately equipped or interested in pursuing respectful communication.

All things considered, being moral gatekeepers of everyone’s perceptions, opinions, and ascribing to the belief that the ultimate reality is the one that is collectively commended, impedes meaningful discourse. Preferably, mutually exchanging ideas, thoughts, and feelings like a grown-up entail expanding one’s consciousness to consider meanings that differ from one’s personal scope of awareness.

When differing world-views are afforded the space to fully communicate, the intention is not to convince or outsmart, but rather to understand. With respect for others' perceptions in place, meaningful dialogue can ensue. A space is created for what humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers and psychologist/educator Richard Farson referred to as active listening.

Rogers and Farson impart, “When people are listened to sensitively, they tend to listen to themselves with more care and to make clear exactly what they are feeling and thinking. Group members tend to listen more to each other, to become less argumentative, more ready to incorporate other points of view. Because listening reduces the threat of having one’s ideas criticized, the person is better able to see them for what they are and is more likely to feel that his contributions are worthwhile.”

Although technology has certainly put a hamper on exercising basic interpersonal skills as physical cues and voice inflection are often unavailable, we are challenged to offset marginalization and alienation through meaningful active engagement.

As Rogers and Farson conclude, “Active listening carries a strong element of personal risk. If we manage to accomplish what we are describing here, to sense deeply the feeling of another person, to understand the meaning his experiences have for him, to see the world as he sees it, we risk being changed ourselves. To get the meaning which life has for him we risk coming to see the world as he sees it. It is threatening to give up, even momentarily, what we believe and start thinking in someone else’s terms. It takes a great deal of inner security and courage to be able to risk one’s self in understanding another.”

Appreciating other dimensions of truth doesn’t mean being weak or indecisive. It doesn’t even entail forfeiting your opinion. It simply means appreciating other ways of interpreting reality. Although this is not an easy task, dispensing with righteous posturing and blame and cultivating the capacity for empathic communication may ultimately be the only way to overturn the oppressive tyranny in which we find ourselves.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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