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ColumnistsPilgrim's NotesElevating the Conversation

Elevating the Conversation


by Jack McLean

“A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding….”

From the writings of Baha’u’llah (1817-1892), the Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith.

The necessary regulation and control of the tongue

The great comparative religionist/historian of religion, Huston Smith, writes that the independent, prophetic religions attempt to regulate and control four crucial areas of human life, through the laws embedded in their moral codes: force (violence), wealth, sex, and the tongue. These four proclivities function as drives or powerful appetites. Smith contended that “the big four” (my phrase) are so formidable that they risk undoing the individual, society and nation alike if they are not governed.

Smith went even farther: he writes that if humans do not control these four tendencies, they will contribute not only to the dysfunction, but even to the extinction of the collectivity, whether they be tribal societies or the nation-state. Smith’s observation reminds me that contemporary western civilization is weirdly reminiscent of the decadent distractions, life-or-death gladiatorial games, and frenetic circuses that were the hallmarks of the decline and fall of the Roman empire.

Let us consider the last of these four drives–the tongue. What happens when the tongue moves too fast or loose? What happens when human speech becomes debased, degraded or vituperative? Conversely, what unsuspected boons would occur if and when words issued from the kindly tongue(s) of the individual or group?

Conversations with those holding opposing views

The big issues of political and moral discourse today, whether it be the environment, corporate responsibility, renewable resources, abortion, gay and lesbian rights, transgender issues, assisted dying–to name only a few–are in the main extremely polarized. The rhetoric in the current US party leadership campaign involves self-aggrandisement, finding fault with the opponent, attack, defence and counter-attack, lies and deception, brinkmanship, demagoguery, even incitement to violence.

The predatory reptilian brain is in full fight-or-flight mode in both the political and personal arenas today. The “pain-body,” Eckhart Tolle teaches in A New Earth, is a conflict-ridden, fear-based parasite that craves feeding. A massive feast is being served up in the volatile political rhetoric south of the border, one that saps body, mind and soul of health and vitality. A fresher wind has begun blowing on the Canadian political scene, but the old-line politically partisan system is still very much in place. In extreme partisan politics, the slide from seeing the other, not just as an opponent, but as an enemy is not a long one.

One of the most valuable skills we could learn in such a volatile atmosphere, be it personal or political, is to sit down and dialogue with those whose views may be diametrically opposed to ours. If we can avoid the fight-or-flight response, and resist the temptation to engage in frontal attack, condemnation and hostile criticism, much will be gained by finding effective solutions, and thereby resolving conflict, to enjoy more harmonious and satisfying interpersonal relations.

The implications for our legislators, the law courts and ourselves, of engaging in consultative dialogue, instead of self-or-other defeating, acrimonious debate or sterile argument, will prove, if given half a chance, to be remarkably transformative. The process is no less important than the outcome; the means is no less consequential than the end. Both means and end should form one organic process.

The adoption of consultative dialogue would mean, of course, a radical departure from the current adversarial political process, but how well is hostile debate based on partisan politics serving the best interests of the nation? How well is fault-finding and criticism serving us in interpersonal relationships?

The kindly tongue in interpersonal relations: beginning in the family

Whatever the problems facing humanity today, it is unlikely that they will be overcome without the full participation of three protagonists: children, youth, and women. Frivolous speech, laced with naked, sexual innuendo and outfront verbal attacks, are so common today that children and youth may be lulled into thinking that such speech should be the norm. The danger is, of course, they they will imitate what they hear and thereby perpetuate the unsavoury pattern with which the mainstream media are saturated.

The kindly tongue is de rigueur in families, if children are to grow up with a healthy sense of self-esteem. Today as in the past, cues are/were emitted through non-verbal communication: the raised eyebrow, the frown, the rolling eyes, the disapproving glance often proved sufficient to make the point.

But for the more explicitly verbal, even a single negative word can prove devastating to the child’s psychological development. Although a moderate verbal chastisement may be necessary from time to time to correct a child’s behaviour, such searing epithets as “stupid,” “dummy,” or “idiot,” are to be strictly avoided, for they can stunt the psychological growth of some children for life.

Then we have that dreaded teacher or parental phrase, uttered either deliberately or in a moment of frustration: “You will never amount to anything.” Not much wonder these words became self-fulfilling prophecies in the lives of too many. To ease the child’s burden, to give encouragement, to exhort, while exposing the child to challenging circumstances, all find expression in the emollient speech that helps to soothe the way in the life of the child. To enlighten, to inform, to exhort, to instruct, to inspire, to humour, are all legitimate and necessary functions of parental speech. To blame and to shame are not.

The spark of truth emerges from the clash of differing opinions not the conflict of personalities

Hand-holding and facile yea-saying should not be the function of consultative dialogue. Value is added when diverse opinions are laid on the table. Although we may be convinced at the outset that our opinion is correct, we should not assume that it is final, never to be challenged or subject to modification. The fact that we presume that we alone are right, and everyone else is wrong, is one of the greatest hindrances to consultative dialogue, and to finding creative solutions to current problems.

Consultative dialogue is an effective tutor of ego curtailment. If the object of the consultation is to find the truth of any situation, i.e. one translation of the truth being to find the most effective solution, then once we set our opinion on the table, we should be detached enough to let it go–then to watch and wait, until the other(s) have set forth their views. If the ideal of unanimity cannot be reached, then the majority view should prevail. In the marriage or the family, a judicious wisdom is required: dad should should sometimes defer to mom, and vice-versa. Make the children part of the consultation. Let them learn the skill. jackmclean999@gmail.com




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