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.  


Perhaps morality sometimes leads us astray…


…astray from compassion, from being as concerned for others as for ourselves, astray to do very harmful things to people in the name of doing right.  By morality, I mean the assumption that you have the wisdom and right to evaluate whether someone else has done bad things to themselves.  Morality says they are less worthy than those who do (only?  more?) good things. 

Example: the opioid crisis

Lately I have been reading about the need to medicalize procedures for dealing with the opioid crisis https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/editorials/article-the-decriminalization-of-simple-drug-possession-is-finally-here-more/  In this approach, which is much more thought-out than others I have read, there is a nice set of distinctions about where morality applies and where it should not:

Under a new PPSC {Public Prosecution Service of Canada} directive, anyone caught with illegal drugs in places frequented by children or teens, or who works with youths, will still be prosecuted. So will those carrying a weapon along with their stash, as will people caught with drugs in isolated communities that are trying to curb misuse. Traffickers will also still face the full weight of the law.

But a person arrested for the possession of a small amount of illegal narcotics intended for personal use will no longer automatically be prosecuted – especially if the person has a substance-use disorder.

Even a person out on bail who violates conditions that prohibit drug use or possession will not be prosecuted, according to the new guidelines.

In Toronto (sorry, I am not keeping track of all Ontario or Canada), drug injection sites are now common, even though they may sometimes bring problems such as dereliction, homeless  begging, and even some crime. https://www.toronto.ca/community-people/health-wellness-care/health-programs-advice/supervised-injection-services/  This solution came about only after much civic action and civil disobedience involving establishment of sites https://torontosun.com/news/local-news/toronto-public-health-calls-for-more-safe-injection-sites https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/drug-injection-sites-causing-concerns-as-ont-reviews-plans-for-more-1.4050861 https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2018/08/15/do-supervised-injection-sites-bring-crime-and-disorder-advocates-and-residents-disagree.html,

The federal government not only has funded some early sites when the province would not, but also is now paying for even more of the service.

The situation has become more dire during COVID https://www.thestar.com/news/city_hall/2020/08/11/toronto-overdose-deaths-hit-a-grim-new-record-in-july-taking-more-lives-than-covid-19.html, another example of COVID’s spotlighting our habits of making life difficult for people (see previous post https://uponreconsidering.blog/2020/06/27/we-have-built-our-society-on-the-wrong-principles-and-values/).

A proper place for morality, and an improper one:

In challenging “morality,” I do not criticize appropriate concern for the safety and weal of local residents and businesses, rather the presumption that addicts near them have “made their beds and must now lie in them,” to quote an old aphorism – meaning all personal conduct has its consequences, and the consequences must be borne.  I myself used to have this attitude, although I was in a position to help people get out from under the immediate consequences.  I was not sufficiently aware of how powerful addiction can be, especially now (see also Pharma:  Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America, by Gerald Posner).

Better approach:  public health and compassion.

Now that we know that for many people this is the result of both more addictive and dangerous drugs, such as fentanyl, on the streets, but also the medical profession’s fear of continuing to provide either inadequate treatment for chronic pain, or of prescribing drugs considered too powerful and addictive.  Morality does not help with these dependencies, but compassion does, along with  a public health approach – this is a disease sometimes caused by the medical profession and pharmaceuticals, and sometimes by other circumstances, but a disease, not a moral failing.  The moral failing now is resisting the public health approach — otherwise we punish people who do not deserve it for their perhaps deliberate self-harmful choices.

Other possible problems with morality:

I wonder where else morality has caused pain rather than recovery.  There used to be shame attached to cancer – not sure the shame came from morality, as such, but unless it was somehow a moral issue for some, it is difficult to understand how else shame attached to it.  (Is there a context where shame exists without morality?)  Perhaps fear had much to do with it – that you have cancer means that you did something wrong, and if I don’t do that, I won’t get cancer. 

Perhaps people simply extended their moral view of STD to other diseases – certainly you wouldn’t get a sexual disease unless you or your partner had done something outside a faithful relationship. Certainly to knowingly risk giving your partner an STD is immoral. Perhaps we extend this way of viewing matters to other communicable diseases? 

But now with COVID, as earlier with SARS, we are in that moral context where, even not knowing you have the disease, acting in a way that brings risk to another would be immoral, however… we know that there are families who do not have the living space to distance in normal circumstances.  They may know they run the risk of contamination, but be unable to mitigate the risk save by washing, sanitizing, and masking.  These may be inadequate.  Families with children going to school are in this uncomfortable situation.  They don’t want their children exposed to COVID; they don’t want to get it from them; but they believe the children need the social experience and the education, and the parents themselves need greater freedom to work on-site or remotely at a small home.  There may be more at-risk others in the small home.  Morality, and the ethic of being concerned as much for others as for yourself, expand the complexity and variety of conflicting actions.  All actions may be taken with due regard to morality and ethics, but none with a clearly correct decision. 

Informed group decisions:

This is the point at which gathering the best information available and discussing it with everyone concerned, is necessary.  Decisions made to the extent possible by everyone’s informed consent is the key, along with acting in love.  Morality doesn’t help much.  To feel pressured to select any of the possible decisions as the clearly moral one, is silly. 

To face so many possibilities tempts you to go with your gut.  Your gut probably does not communicate with everyone else’s, so it is far better to together consider and decide these matters with our conscious minds. And of course, be open to new information and changes in circumstances.

And what if the decision taken causes more harm than expected and someone outside the decision circle says, “You chose the wrong path.”  Wrong how?  Do they know what you considered at the time; how you all felt about it?   Morality may tempt someone to say, “had you chosen wisely, these bad consequences would not have occurred.”  But obvious bad result does not necessarily mean bad choosing among so many variables (see the “made your bed” argument earlier).

A place for morality:

It may be that, had we no sense of morality, we wouldn’t condemn the introduction of fentanyl, nor the acts which can still be prosecuted.  So morality has its place in protecting people, as does the law.

The need for genuine concern:

Applying only the practices of medicine and public heath rather than morality, is insufficient.  There must be genuine concern for the welfare of the sufferers, regardless of how their situation came about.  That form of morality is far superior to judging people.  Bringing these systemic practices to bear necessarily involves many people and systems, along with the need for financing.  Systemic practice is more expensive than morality, which might leave people to rot in the streets alone and “decrease the surplus population,” to quote Scrooge.  Perhaps that is why this wrankles – it requires that the surrounding society, not just an individual, help, with or without knowing.  Many do not like to feel they must help others, especially those with whom they would usually be unacquainted.

Many of us are accustomed to well-worn paths in our lives – our residential neighbourhood, the area around our work, our children’s schools, our regular shopping locations.  Perhaps we use morality to ward off any sense of obligation to allow others, at our expense, to assist people not on our paths.  Perhaps we use the familiar to keep from walking those different paths ourselves.  While my own beliefs and religion demand that I do walk those different paths sometimes, I recognize that I don’t always know enough about a situation, to help effectively and without needless danger to myself.   It is at that point that I am grateful for whoever has  gone before me – sized up the situation, brought knowledge to bear, and so forth.  They can help me help effectively.  That’s where we are with the drug situation.  We should be grateful, and endorse the effort for as long as it is effective. 

And if our sense of morality gets in the way, we should put it aside and say, “Wait and watch.”