Spencer Smith, a budding personality in the field of education reform, just launched a new blog. There, he lays out his purpose with the following:
This is a place for conversation. I have given a lot of thought to what I could do to best contribute to the education reform movement. I believe what is missing (at least in the online world) is a place for open and healthy discussion.
This breakdown of communication among educators is typical of our politics: Shared goals are overlooked in the fight over divergent methods. Spencer believes this happens when we don’t listen to one another. The solution? Force a conversation — a real conversation, an intimate conversation — and each party will be forced to admit the other isn’t evil.
The merits of conversation have been proven. Studies show that individuals who interact with openly gay persons are more likely to support gay rights. When you talk with a person, you end up treating them like a human being.
But the above paragraph also highlights a weakness of conversation. The same informality that makes it so effective is potentially dangerous. How do you know I didn’t make that study up? Even if I did, you already fell victim to its sentiment. It’s a nice story. It’s touching.
Let’s be clear: Conversation is also discrimination’s medium of choice. It is where so many -isms were invented. It is where hegemony lurks. The difference is that these ideas were constructed out of exclusion. They were whispered in private between glancing smirks and pointing fingers.
The most serious threat to discrimination is inclusion. It’s the very laziness of conversation that makes it so devastating to ideologues. Because Barack Obama and Paul Ryan are both midwestern wonks. Because Rush Limbaugh and Ed Schultz both love to hear themselves talk. And when confronted with the reality that these people are people, with common ground and who exist as more than voices on the radio or text on a screen, we end up treating them with dignity.
For journalists like myself, demanding conversation is easy. Journalism was always meant to be conversational. That’s why newspapers first published letters to the editor. Luckily for us, technology has made real journalistic conversation possible. We’ve learned that a comment section (like our government) left unchecked tends to devolve into an intellectual wasteland. A new model — a model that values meaningful interaction with readers equally with the news they’re reading — would cultivate productive communities while building reader loyalty. When anonuser1234 knows that the journalist he’s followed for years will be looking at his comment, scrutinizing it for value, and that an entire community of individuals will be doing the same, he’s less likely to drop the f-bomb and more likely to have a nuanced discussion of nuclear energy. And isn’t that what we want?