In her enduring reflection on the wonder of true human contact, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, "Words transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and multiply it." They pass back and forth understanding or feeling, amplifying it." What happens, though, is a cultural ecosystem where the listener is extinct and the speaker is rife? Where do understanding and transformation go?
What made James Baldwin and Margaret Mead's superb 1970 dialogue about race and identity so powerful and enduringly insightful was that it was a dialogue — not the Ping-Pong of opinions and co-reactivity that passes for dialogue nowadays, but a commitment to mutual contemplation of viewpoints and considered response. They were able to address questions we still face with tenfold more depth and nuance than we are capable of now because of their commitment.
And it is because of the lack of this dedication in our current culture that we continue to be torn apart by conflict and immobilized by the divisiveness of "we vs. them" narratives. In considering power and possibilities, the poet Elizabeth Alexander stated, "To bother to interact with problematic culture, and problematic people inside that culture, is an act of love." Such involvement is referred to by Krista Tippett as "generous listening." Yet, in today's world, so much of our communication is characterized by a callous refusal to listen combined with a strong want to communicate.
Because of the lack of this dedication in our current culture, we continue to be torn apart by conflict and immobilized by the separation of "we vs. them" narratives. "To bother to deal with problematic culture, and problematic people inside that culture, is an act of love," the poet Elizabeth Alexander said when discussing power and possibilities. "Generous listening," as Krista Tippett describes it, is the result of such involvement. In today's environment, however, so much of our communication is marked by a callous refusal to listen paired with a strong desire to speak.
"Although this worldwide network of interconnections, there is a widespread perception that communication is breaking down on an unprecedented scale... What appears is usually a collection of minor and almost unrelated fragments at best, and at worst, it can be a serious cause of misunderstanding and disinformation."
David Joseph Bohm 20 December 1917 – 27 October 1992) was an American scientist who has been described as one of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th century and who contributed unorthodox ideas to quantum theory, neuropsychology and the philosophy of mind.
Bohm advanced the view that quantum physics meant that the old Cartesian model of reality – that there are two kinds of substance, the mental and the physical, that somehow interact – was too limited. To complement it, he developed a mathematical and physical theory of "implicate" and "explicate" order. He also believed that the brain, at the cellular level, works according to the mathematics of some quantum effects, and postulated that thought is distributed and non-localised just as quantum entities are.
He refers to this as a communication problem and writes:
"Many groups are unable to communicate with one another. As a result, attempting to improve communication typically leads to even more confusion, and the frustration that ensues drives people toward hostility and violence rather than mutual understanding and trust."
Bohm proposes that the problem stems from our "crude and insensitive way of thinking about communication and talking about it," and he sets out to recapture the essential subtlety by reclaiming the actual meaning of communication and its supreme mastery, dialogue:
"The word communication is derived from the Latin word "commun" and the suffix "ie," which is related to the word "fie" in that it signifies "to make or do." So one definition of "to communicate" is "to make something common," i.e., to accurately pass information or knowledge from one person to another."
However, this definition does not encompass everything that communication means. Take, for example, a dialogue. When one person says anything in this type of dialogue, the other person does not always answer with the same meaning as the first person. Rather, the meanings are similar rather than identical. As a result, when the second person responds, the first person notices a discrepancy between what he intended to say and what the other person comprehended. When he considers the difference, he may be able to notice something new that is pertinent to both his own and the other person's viewpoints. As a result, it can go back and forth, with fresh content that is shared by both parties emerging on a regular basis. As a result, in a dialogue, each participant does not strive to bring up ideas or facts that he already knows. Rather, it may be argued that the two people are creating something together, i.e. something new.
However, such conversation may only result in the creation of anything new if people are free to listen to one another without bias and without attempting to influence one another. Each must be primarily concerned with truth and coherence so that he is willing to abandon old ideas and intents and move on to something new when the time comes.
Such communication in the service of creating something new, according to Bohm, occurs not just between persons but also within people. He exemplifies this with an example that recalls Alan Lightman's lovely contemplation on art and science's creative sympathies, and writes:
"Take, for instance, the work of an artist. Is it accurate to say that the artist is expressing himself that is, physically "pushing outward" something that has already formed within him? In most cases, such a description is inaccurate or inadequate. Rather, what generally happens is that the artist's first attempt is just superficially comparable to what he may have in mind. He notices the similarities and differences, just as he would in a conversation between two people, and something else develops from this awareness in his next move. As a result, something new is made on a regular basis that is shared by the artist and the material on which he is working.
The scientist is having a similar "conversation" with nature (as well as with his fellow human beings). As a result, when a scientist has a hypothesis, it is put to the test through observation. When he realizes that what he sees is similar but not identical to what he imagined, he creates a new theory based on the similarities and differences, which he subsequently tests. So it goes, with the birth of something new that is similar to scientists' cognition and what is observed in nature."
Bohm adds, in a remark that emphasizes the value of the unpleasant luxury of altering one's mind:
"If we want to live in harmony with ourselves and with nature, we must be able to speak freely in a creative process in which no-one retains or defends his or her own beliefs indefinitely."
He points out that these ideas are based on assumptions we have about various aspects of life, such as politics, economics, and religion, and that these assumptions are referred to as "opinions." Bohm claims that the urge to adhere to our existing opinions is a kind of self-protective "block" Four centuries after Galileo warned against the folly of believing one's assumptions, we use it as a hedge against our fear of uncertainty. However, by preventing ambiguity, we are also preventing our ability to listen. He points out that fertile discussion necessitates first becoming aware of our own "blocks" and then being willing to overcome them. He says in his letter:
"Can each of us be aware of the subliminal fear and pleasure impulses that "block" his ability to listen freely when we meet to discuss or act in concert?
The command to listen to the entirety of what is spoken will be meaningless without this awareness. But if each of us can pay close attention to what is actually "blocking" communication while also paying close attention to the content of what is communicated, we may be able to create something new between us, something very important for solving the currently unsolvable problems of the individual and society."
Bohm explores the key difference between dialogue and discussion in a piece that is becoming increasingly timely today:
"The term "conversation" comes from the Greek word dialogos, which means "to converse." The Greek word logos means "word," or, in our situation, "meaning of the word." And dia means "through" rather than "two." A conversation can involve any number of people, not just two. If the spirit of the dialogue is present, even one person can experience a sense of dialogue within himself. This derivation conjures up a picture or idea of a stream of meaning flowing among, though, and through us. This will allow for a flow of meaning throughout the group, possibly leading to new knowledge. It's something fresh, which may or may not have been present at the outset. It's a unique concept. People and civilizations are held together by the "glue" or "cement" of shared meaning.
In comparison, the word "discussion" comes from the same root as "percussion" and "concussion." It literally means to dismantle something. It highlights the concept of analysis, where there may be multiple points of view and each one is presented in a unique way – dissecting and breaking up. That has obvious importance, but it is limited, and it will not lead us very far beyond our differing viewpoints. Discussion is similar to a Ping-Pong game in which participants bat ideas back and forth with the goal of winning or gaining points for themselves...
Nobody in dialogue, on the other hand, is aiming to win. If anyone wins, everyone wins. It exudes a different kind of spirit. There is no attempt to gain points or to make your point of view prevail in a dialogue. Rather, anytime someone makes a mistake, everyone benefits. It's a win-win position, as opposed to a win-lose situation, in which if I win, you lose. A dialogue, on the other hand, is more of a shared experience in which we are not competing against one another, but rather cooperating with one another. Everyone wins in a dialogue."
A True conversation, according to Bohm, not only prompts us to challenge the assumptions that underpin our beliefs but also urges us to engage in a continuous act of self-revision at the level of the thinking process itself — the process from which our beliefs are derived. This self-reflection occurs on an individual as well as a social level. He considers how difficult it is to reconsider thought:
"It's hard to safeguard something without thinking about how to defend it first. There are some thoughts that may cast doubt on what you're defending, and you must push them aside. That could easily involve deception — you'll simply dismiss a lot of things you don't want to accept by claiming they're incorrect, twisting the topic, and so on. Thought defends its fundamental assumptions in the face of evidence that they may be incorrect."
Bohm points out that humans have two types of thought: individual and collective, and that most of our individual assumptions are a result of our cultural training and "collective background." He says in his letter:
"Language is a collective. The majority of our fundamental assumptions come from our culture, including all of our beliefs about how society works, what kind of person we should be, and how relationships, institutions, and other things work. As a result, we must pay attention to our thoughts individually and collectively."
Bohm adds, writing in the same era as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who invented the term "meme":
"Assumptions or viewpoints are analogous to computer programs in people's heads. Those programs, despite our best efforts, take control and set their own objectives."
"A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."
― David Bohm" Perhaps there is more sense in our nonsense and more nonsense in our 'sense' than we would care to believe."
― David Bohm Suppose we were able to share meanings freely without a compulsive urge to impose our view or conform to those of others and without distortion and self-deception. Would this not constitute a real revolution in culture? "
― David Bohm "The ability to perceive or think differently is more important than the knowledge gained."
― David Bohm "There is a difficulty with only one person changing. People call that person a great saint or a great mystic or a great leader, and they say, 'Well, he's different from me - I could never do it.' What's wrong with most people is that they have this block - they feel they could never make a difference, and therefore, they never face the possibility, because it is too disturbing, too frightening."
Those intents function on what Bohm refers to as the "tacit level" — a level that is deeper, more intuitive, and virtually automatic than our conscious awareness, and of which we only have a hazy understanding. He goes on to say:
The term "tacit" refers to something that is not expressed and cannot be described, such as the knowledge required to ride a bicycle. It is genuine knowledge, which may or may not be coherent. I propose that thought is a subconscious, unspoken activity. The concrete thinking process is a pretty secretive one. The meaning is mostly oblique. And what we can express verbally is only a fraction of it. I believe we all recognize that we rely on tacit knowledge for practically everything we do. The tacit ground is where thought emerges, and the tacit ground is where any fundamental change in thought emerges. So, if we're communicating in code, it's possible that our thinking is shifting.
The unspoken procedure is very prevalent. It's a shared resource. Sharing entails more than just explicit communication, body language, and other nonverbal cues; there is also a deeper, more widespread implicit process. I believe that for a million years, the entire human race was aware of this; yet, during the course of five thousand years of civilization, we have lost sight of it because our societies have grown too large to carry it out. But now it's time to get back to work because communication has become critical. To perform whatever is required intelligently, we must share our consciousness and be able to think together. If we start confronting what's going on in a conversation group, we'll have a good idea of what's going on in the rest of society."
But Bohm's most important point — and the one that most disturbs our current communication habits — is that meaningful discussion must be focused on the higher-order goal of meaning, not at some immediate or practical answer. Bohm writes, a quarter-century before physicist Sean Carroll presented his stunning case for "poetic naturalism" as our highest source of meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe:
"It is not an unreasonable imposition to declare that we have no defined goal — or at least no absolute purpose. We may establish relative investigative goals, but we are not committed to anyone's goal and are not implying that the entire group must adhere to that goal permanently. Even while we all want the human race to survive, that is not our goal. If you want to call it that, our goal is to speak truthfully and coherently.
Sharing meaning is vital. A society is a web of connections between individuals and institutions that allows us to coexist. However, it will only function if we have a culture, which implies that we share meaning, such as significance, purpose, and value. Otherwise, it will crumble. Our civilization is illogical and incapable of doing so; it hasn't done so in a long time if it ever did. People's various assumptions are inadvertently influencing the overall meaning of what we're doing."
"If we can't connect and convey meaning, love will fade away... However, if we can truly communicate, we will have a growing sense of camaraderie, participation, friendship, and love. That's the way to go...
And possibly, when we have this high level of coherence in the discussion, we can go beyond simply being a group that can solve societal problems. It's possible that it will bring about a new change in the person as well as a shift in the individual's relationship with the cosmic. The term "communion" has been used to describe this type of energy. It's a form of engagement. The early Christians had a Greek word, koinonia, whose root meaning "to partake" — the idea of partaking of and participating in the whole; not just the whole group, but the whole."