The Usefulness of Talking

Perhaps I owe my readers an apology: I have not been citing books much lately, even though they are a mainstay of this blog. The fact is, I have not been reading books lately. This is partly because our libraries are closed, and it will be several weeks yet before I can request more books or ask that they be purchased. I haven’t the room in the house for all the books I’d like to purchase; not all books are as good as promised; and of course they cost a lot. But it is mostly because during COVID a remarkable number of organizations have put free events, lectures, and panel discussions on line. These used to take place downtown. One would have to drive there, find parking, maybe dine before or after, and pay for admission. You would get to mix with others interested in the subject, which is always attractive. But the cost in money and time limited the number of such events I could attend. Now they are offering these on-line usually for free. I have immersed myself in them while they last. I barely have the time! There are webinars by

The Canadian Urban Institute
Urban Land Institute
Toronto Foundation
Ryerson University’s City Building Institute
University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics
Canadian Journalism Foundation
The Belfer Centre for Science
The Munk Debates
University of Toronto School of Cities
The Centre for International Governance Innovation
Data and Society
Future Cities

And for entertainment there are the

Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (Toronto)
Stratford Festival Theatre
The National Theatre (Britain)
McMichael Art Gallery
Art Gallery of Ontario
Ryerson Image Centre
The Orpheus Choir

As well as concerts by individual artists. What a time for free information and entertainment!

Like books, you have to get into each new production before evaluating its usefulness for this blog or in other matters. So, I attend the webinars and await more books.

I work with, and sometimes chair, several groups and committees, all of whom also have moved to on-line communication, both by e-mail and texts, and by group communications in real time. These are person-to-person, but not physically together. I have had to reconsider the qualities of these measures (I was previously opposed) because they are necessary during this pandemic.

In any of these groups, I am not the only one thinking about the value of communicating this way. Others suggest how to do it better. The suggestions are based on different values. I myself place a high value on talking with others for a long time. I want to hear their opinions, their facts, how they express them, notice what they choose to bring into the discussion and what they don’t, to wonder whether those are deliberate choices or simply offering the latest information they have seen.

Perhaps, I think, those not retired, haven’t the time to read widely for a greater variety of sources or opinions, but I am regularly impressed by how widely even the busiest people read. I have developed confidence that what they bring to conversation is the result of curated material. They have considered what they know and what they believe. But they may be unaccustomed to having the time, and the clearly expressed interest of others, to fully express their views and information. I could spend hours listening to those views and sifting among them, not only for the joy of being able to respect them so highly, but also for what I may learn, and for the really exciting prospect of changing my own views.

I am extraordinarily fortunate in being able to keep such company. Although…in 38 years as a clergy, I did not find among the groups in the churches, nor among the individuals within or outside the churches, people whose thinking, interests, and levels of information were uninteresting. I think this may be because there was always time to hear them, if not right at a given moment, then later in a follow-up communication.

Oh, I read about people who utter ill-considered remarks, or act doltishly. I sometimes read their actual written views, or watch and listen to them on radio or TV. But I haven’t actually encountered them in person. Was my exposure to the world too narrow as a churchman? I think not. I met and talked with people in the inner city of Detroit and of Toronto, as well as rural residents and suburban residents. I have met with mentally people in slums, and in very posh areas. I have met with mentally healthy people in the slums and in the posh areas. I have met with people of a variety of faiths, although they tended to be people who wanted to know other different people and look for areas of cooperation, if not agreement. So probably I did not meet with people who don’t want to meet someone like myself.

I have been with people at the very bottom of their lives in grief, addiction, illness, and just catastrophic chaos. I have been with people at the top of their game, their highest financial achievement, at the time of their political victory. I guess that anyone who is willing to talk with me, rather than just to me or at me, is interesting. Perhaps it is the others who are not.  So, no, I don’t think my experience has been narrow.

I taught a course for a local college once called Civil Discourse. It was about how to talk respectfully with other people, and really listen. There were few registrants. Three sessions into the course I learned that several of them, having decided together to register, were now leaving because of unmet expectations. They had expected to learn how to win in conversations and disagreements. The other registrants, more passive, left because, without the verve of the people who wanted to win, the remaining people became bored. I guess my viewpoint is disappointing to those who want to win conversations and arguments.

I read somewhere that while the U.S. developed its independence by confrontation and war, Canada gained its unity among the provinces, its constitution, and its all-but-ceremonial independence from Britain, by talking. Bringing together the original provinces was accomplished by morning and afternoon meetings of conversation, and evenings of entertainment, chatting, and drinking, usually with spouses attending. It’s been suggested that the mornings may not have included quite as much conversation, owing to residual effects of the previous evenings. (I know many Canadians believe that the country’s individual identity was brought about by Canadian-led combat during the First World War, but even that was a cooperative effort with other countries. It is important not to disregard both features of our history.) This talking was engaged for definitive purposes and goals, not just for social comradery.  But it was talking and exchanging views, nonetheless.

So I hold a strong belief in the value of talking for the sake of learning and sharing and enjoying others’ company, but also for the purposes of making decisions and coming to agreement about matters. In the group meetings to make decisions, others want to emphasize getting the job done. They want lists of what must be accomplished, the priorities among them, and a limited amount of time to discuss each one. I understand these preferences, coming from people who are busier than I. I cooperate with these preferences, but I grieve for what we as individuals and as a group forego because, of necessity, talking is limited. I know these people individually, the depth and breadth of their knowledge and thinking. I think it is terrible that the others in the group risk not witnessing any of that.

I believe that we will make better decisions, and take on more tasks, as the result of hearing as much as people want to say about issues. Full discussion offers greater opportunity to discover things we would not have known to consider, let alone reconsider.

Establishing priorities is very important for many. “Pick your three top priorities…” we are forever instructed. This risks never getting around to examining the other ideas, the other issues, or the other questions. They are lost to our cognizance. They are lost topics around which we might gather our experiences. We shall whiz by them, probably never looking back. At the next meeting we will again pick the top three priorities. But all may be entirely new matters which, perhaps, can be fully understood only by considering them in the context of the older matters we haven’t considered yet, because they weren’t the top three the last time, or the time before that. Always picking the newest top three, we may forego understanding how we got to this point.

We can make many poor choices in the now if we never examine the then. Example: I was in correspondence with a local politician about one of the poverty programs, expressing my disappointment with the shallow efforts of her government. She replied that this was “at least a good first step.” I wrote to her of the previous thirty years’ efforts on this matter, and insisted that her government should look at the whole range of efforts and discern why the problem persisted. It was ‘way past time for lauding “first steps.”

That’s the value of reconsidering: I want to understand the past and the present, to give or withhold informed consent to the history of a matter, not just the immediate effort. In group discussions, take the time to gather those personal histories which explain how each of us came to our view at this moment.  This leads to a deeper understanding of an issue, and a greater understanding of each other. If you have time to talk you will hear peoples’ stories. If you want to understand the real reason for a person’s view, look not merely to the facts, the arguments and discourse, and the choices of the moment. Look rather to the person’s story leading up to this view at this time. Having been invited into their story, you can understand at a gut level the person’s views. You can’t argue with it. You can only understand it in your gut. And then, after sharing your own story, you enter a different conversation with each other that is more considerate, more patient, and more respectful.

After that you will not only understand the joint decisions, but you will have greater perception about what else can be decided in the future. For an enjoyable example of the benefit of just talking, see an on-line history of Toronto’s Union Station, particularly the story of the welcoming of war brides. How to welcome them?  Help with the kids, serve coffee, and talk. 


Restraint and Civic Virtue

In his frightening and inspiring book, Reset:  Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society,  Ronald J. Deibert, director of the Citizens Lab at the University of Toronto, recommends some surprising ways to diminish the threats of social media and cybercrimes, information distortion, and surveillance capitalism:  restraint, and encouraging “civic virtue.”

Restraint includes going slow, reigning in personal habits which lend themselves to outside control, restraining the power of the major social media providers (as recently in Australia), and ensuring redundancy.  My purpose is not to explain all his theses – for that you can read the book.  It is to consider his ideas further.


Several forms of restraint come to mind.  One is to keep control of my life by limiting the amount of information I take in, whether pushed by outside sources or solicited by myself.  It certainly includes limiting the number of various sources which alert me –I don’t need noises going off on my phone throughout the day – keeping only appointments and task reminders.  I’ll seek out other  information at times of my own choosing, thank you.

Another form of restraint is to choose very carefully what I do with new information and  messages of advocacy.  In reconsidering matters, I need to not only take in new information.  I need to reconsider the old information, to discern whether what is called “new” really is.  Example:  a friend considers the new investors’ emphasis on ESG (environment, social issues, and corporate governance) to be both new and important.  It behooves businesses to report their activities and plans in these categories to attract investment.  I responded that I, an ethicist, have reviewed many companies which for years have generally reported annually their adherence to different agencies’ ethics checklists, charts, and graphs. I’m glad for “new” emphases, but they are not necessarily of a new and different quality. One must do things in the new way, of course.

From many of the books in the field of psychology I’ve cited in posts so far, I understand and accept that much “thinking” is done unconsciously, and that emotion contributes more to “thinking” than I want to credit (see most recently How Emotions are Made:  the Secret Life of the Brain, Lisa Feldman Barrett). Another author claims that most of our “thinking” is really habit (Unique: the New Science of Individuality, David J. Linden).   Nonetheless, there should be time set aside for explicit, conscious thought.  (I include in conscious thought “gathering clouds” as one fictional French police detective Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg does.)  The important quality is to set aside deliberate time for thought about this matter, and not just move onto other things, leaving the thinking to the subconscious.

Such conscious thought should include questioning why this is the argument or piece of information – why not ______________?  It should involve carefully examining the language – what exactly does this very suggestive word mean in this context?  Is this argument unique, or does it remind me of something else?  What is the background of the person putting this out – have they had experience of a life so different from mine that I should give it careful regard?  Are there academic or professional credentials?  What are the third-and fourth-order implications of this information, or argument?  Does it use analogies which break down quickly when considered in a real-life context?  Is the argument well expressed – am I giving it consideration primarily because of the content or because of the quality of expression?  If it is not well expressed, is it potentially worth my working hard to be sure I understand it, or should I simply give it a miss?  Is the argument merely logical, or is it inductive, building one anecdote on top of another until I can see the whole structure and realize it is a valid description of how things are?

Civic Virtue

Deibert also prescribes bringing back “civic virtue.” This includes “…self-restraint, compromise; skilled knowledge of, and deference to, civic institutions.”  This can be fostered by mass education, public ceremonies, public architecture, and iconography.  I like the concept in theory, but we are all aware of the dangers attending the state’s fostering a particular view of patriotism through associated institutions.  Such things may be done too thoroughly, prescribing the “proper” attitude. 

For example, parades may promote militarism, because they are often military in style, involving uniformed people marching in unison, playing what is supposed to be uplifting, inspiring music with a commanding beat.  A parade of actual military people suggests strongly that they are to be respected because they are the military.  A march by the RCMP suggest the same respect by association. Or parades may promote particular cultural values. In Canada, to attend the Orange Day parade used to be a sign of particular sympathies which were divisive and intolerant of some other senses of citizenship. Many are the people who do not think these organizations represent the country we want Canada to be, or, perhaps, they once did, but are unsure now.

We think of the statues and street names which are being re-considered because they commemorate people who established the ill-reputed schools for aboriginals, or who professed highly racist views.  Some feel that society should no longer give witness to the reputations of those commemorated, even when they also stood for other more respectable views.  An example would be Egerter Ryerson, a founder of the aboriginal schools system, but also of Ontario’s public school system.

Sometimes we can change commemorations of the past without causing current problems. Canada seemed to be able to change our national anthem from time to time to meet new sensibilities.  Forsaking male-oriented language,  recently we changed “true patriot love in all thy sons command” to “in all our hearts command.”  Perhaps there are such easy routes to detach ourselves from other questionable commemorations.

No doubt “civic institutions” would include democratic processes, Parliament, our courts, our schools, universities, and hospitals, places of worship, public gathering places, hockey arenas, the Queen’s representative and the monarchy itself.  Generally their purpose seems to be to identify causes greater than ourselves, representing qualities to which we aspire either personally or as a country, as well as values and goals which we can set before us on the physical and moral landscape. 

The Need for Trust

Respecting any or all these requires trust, i.e., a dead certain conviction that they are reliable placeholders that will not let us down.  As we consider the difficulty of doing this, it`s not surprising that social media have fragmented us.  It is easier to hold onto a set of values about which we, and people we like, agree, than to adopt more general values to which all must subscribe, but not all agree.  So choosing our civic virtues requires difficult work to find words which express our own values, and then ensure either that the same words have the same valued meaning to others, or at least do not offend them.  We must also listen to words which have meaning for others, and decide whether they offend us.  A difficult example was the  description of Québec as a “distinct society” during the Meech Lake Accord fiasco in the late eighties (my American readers will have to look this up – it’s much too nuanced to explain in this post).  The words were the same in the two languages, but the meanings were significantly different.  Using these same words did not provide a satisfactory solution.  Québec nationalism and desire to leave Canada grew right through the middle of those words, and the rest of Canada did not want to condone that sense of separateness.  Nonetheless the country had enough desire to stay together, even without agreeing on the words.  Perhaps our civic virtue is that we were able to keep talking even after the referendum (for Americans: the question was whether Québec should and could separate from Canada) was defeated.  I’m unsure that the talking would have continued had the referendum passed.  Perhaps it would have: after all,   much talking and actual negotiating continue after Brexit.  Perhaps talking would have continued then, too.  The very fact that there is an exclusively Québec political party in the Parliament of Canada also suggests that this is so. 

Further examples:  Québec`s governing house is the National Assembly.  We also refer to the aboriginal populations in Canada as “nations.”  I suspect that the term as used among aboriginals means the same thing to them as it does to Québecois, but the rest of Canada regards these nations very differently, because the latter’s meaning is more threatening to national unity than the former.  It is these distinctions and these tensions, together with highly differentiated institutions in each culture, which cause us to continue to talk and disagree.  These compose Canada’s “civic virtue.”

Civic virtue, then, is not necessarily something which can or should be imposed by the state, nor is it necessarily about words on which we agree.  It more nearly seems to be a basic desire to get along with these people somehow, accomplished in part by continuing to talk with the “others”, even without explicit agreements.  What we see in social media is the very opposite.

What`s needed, as I`ve posted elsewhere ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­(The Usefulness of Talking – Upon reconsidering…)  is talking with others, and lots of it.  That is our civic virtue. The place of restraint is obvious.  As is the place of informed consent, along with a great deal of reconsidering.