By Andrew Keith
The idea of progress has been scrutinized from the beginning of time, but in the modern historical era especially. Is the transition from a rural, plantation-dominated world to the more urban, industrialized world archetypal of progress if we consider the lives that were lost to airplanes, tanks, and weaponry during the international conflicts that ravaged our world in the twentieth century? Is the creation of the internet, where billions of sources contain more knowledge and information than any other generation in history has ever had such ease of access to, representative of progress if we consider the inclusion of harassment, negative self-image issues, and stunted character growth typical to social medias? Almost everything we believe to be “progress” has its drawbacks and critiques.
The most important facet of this debate, however, is not on the definition of progress itself because there is no way I’d be able to accurately and appropriately convey an acceptable response. The aspect of progress I find most interesting in the modern, technological world is the idea of how to attain progress to begin with. The implications of progress itself (whether it be political, social, economic, etc.) do not matter if progress can’t be reached in the first place. Does progress come from marching and protesting for what you believe in? Does it come from the Senator who proposes a bill before Congress? Does it come from the President’s loaded Twitter feed? Progress is not found in any of those ways…at least not directly. Humanity has always found progress via one way: conversation. From Socrates’ Socratic Method to the United States’ judicial branch, logical and rational conversation has been the foundation for the stepping stones of progress throughout all of history. It isn’t the marches or protests that discover progress, it’s the conversation that ensues from the marches and protests. It isn’t the Senator alone who unearths progress, but the conversation among all Senators that follows a proposition. It isn’t the President’s Twitter feed that pioneers progress, it’s the digital conversation that transpires.
Ideas permeate our everyday lives but so rarely do we find time to converse with someone we disagree with because, if we’re honest, we don’t believe it would be worth our time. We believe our ideas are sufficient and require no challenging. We don’t facilitate a mindset that says, “I have my own opinions and I’ll argue them, but I am also willing to reconsider my point of view after I hear your most persuasive argument on why you’re right.” (This is an extremely long mindset so please don’t start reciting this every morning when you wake up. You get the idea.) As Americans, we have lost our ability to connect with one another ideologically which makes governing and communicating nearly impossible since there are so many prominent ideas and beliefs in American culture. What has made America great since its existence is the fact that America is not defined by its limitations but by its endless opportunities. We have become the center for modern, Western thought in 2 and a half centuries because we were founded by men who believed in conversing with one another freely without limitation and without government superiority. Why is the freedom of speech in the first amendment? Because it was meant to be foundational in how our democracy functions. We have lost sight of this foundational principle.
Today, we each get on social medias like Twitter and Facebook where we’ve viewed sites that have certain political affiliations, we’ve viewed peoples’ profiles who have certain political stances, and we’ve viewed links that direct us to certain political issues. Algorithms find what certain things we are interested in so they can directly market to our point of view so that we don’t have to be “offended” by what we are advertised. They feed us endless piles of the political garbage we want and we eat it up like a kid in a candy store. This ideological echo chamber proves that we are lacking substance in the modern political conversation. I must also add that there is a distinct difference between a conversation and an argument. While an argument is a type of conversation, it usually involves highly emotional rhetoric and an absence of respectful consideration regarding the other side’s point of view. Back to the true discussion, the polarization our country is experiencing right now is founded in the lack of conversation and civic discourse.
In October 2017, my friend and I decided to go to a local “Black-White Dialogue” in hopes that we may broaden our perspectives and have our beliefs challenged. My friend had introduced himself to the leader of this group a few weeks prior after he overheard them slandering Christians and conservatives. They took his email, invited him to their monthly meeting at the local senior center, and he invited me to join him. Let me tell you, it’s no easy thing to walk into a room where you know that every person will likely disagree with every word you say. And that’s practically what happened. The dialogue lasted about an hour and we talked about issues like white privilege and rampancy of racism in America. Overall, I felt as if my beliefs were thoroughly challenged as the conversation led me to question many of the beliefs I held, which is exactly what I attended for. At the end, I signed my email on an email list, shook a few stern hands, and left on my merry way. So far, this seems like a great counter-example to my claim that America is lacking vital conversation, but there’s a kicker: I was never contacted with further information. Now, I would be willing to concede the highly-unlikely-yet-possible reality that they couldn’t read my oft-times illegible handwriting, but my friend, who had been part of the email list already, never received an email either. Peculiar, isn’t it?
The overall atmosphere in American politics does not appear to condone productive conversation at this point in our history. We struggle with simple debates. We struggle with challenges to our beliefs. We struggle with listening to others’ arguments with an open mind. We struggle with conversing. Unfortunately, this isn’t an issue we can easily cure with a simple solution. The antidote requires the active participation of millions of Americans to reason with one another and converse on the daily issues plaguing this nation. For too long we have “respected” others’ beliefs by simply ignoring them. If what you truly desire is progress, why not have a conversation about what progress is to begin with. That’s a good start.