On “Moving The Conversation Forward”

conversationI don’t know how often I’ve heard the phrase “moving the conversation forward.” We could be talking sex ethics, church and culture, science and faith, or whatever. Every subject has a conversation around it and it’s always supposed to be going forward. Now, I have to say, I don’t always know what that means. Of course, it’s very simple to say what the string of words mean together. There is a “conversation” between interlocutors on an issue, and it is to be “moved forward.” But meaning is also a function of use. So there’s a question of “how is this being used?” Well, I can think of three senses.

First, there’s the idea of “growth in mutual understanding.” When you start a conversation between people who disagree on an issue, it’s possible to be separated from each other in at least two senses. First, you can disagree on the issue. I support A, and you support B. Second, we can disagree about what the issue even is. I might support A, but you think I support C, and while you support B, I suppose you support D. In this case, the conversation can “move forward” when we grow to understand each other’s actual position, even if neither of us actually move away from our original position.

Second, there’s the sense of “new, intellectual ground being broken.” In this usage, it could be that while you support B and I support A, in the conversation, it’s possible that in the course of the conversation we find that E is an option that neither of us had been considered before that deals with both of our concern. In this option, an impasse is broken and we both move forward together.

Third, there is the sense of “you move to agreeing with me.” In this case, I support A, which is further beyond B, and so the conversation moves forward when you catch up with me. And this, I take it, is actually the most common use.

Here’s the couple of interesting things I’ve noticed about the these senses:

First, the third sense is usually somewhat hidden, or parasitic on the first or the second uses. In other words, when many today suggest we try to “move the conversation forward”, the idea is we’re to be open to find a new middle ground, or move towards greater mutual understanding is implied. And who doesn’t want that? But the problem comes when you enter the conversation, under the guise of the first or second sense, yet what you really mean is the third.

Second, we often don’t notice that in inviting people to “move the conversation forward” in the second sense, you’re already asking them to accept the premise that whatever position they currently hold is unworkable and ought to be moved beyond. But even there you’re subtly begging the question.

Of course, I don’t think most people don’t do this consciously. Rather, we subconsciously assume that “if the discussion is properly had, once you actually understand my views, you’ll end up agreeing with me.”  Or, “if the discussion is properly had, once we actually talk it all through, we’ll end up with some third position that’s not yours.” We have trouble imagining that at the end of the conversation, at least one or both of us will remain in the same place, or that it “moves forward” only in the first sense.

This is caught up with another phenomena I’ve noted before, which is our tendency to think that everyone holding a position on an issue (atonement, salvation, etc) must be in the same place in the process of discernment that we ourselves are. So, if I’m only now discovering the other side’s view on a subject, and I’ve hitherto held my position naively, then I tend to assume that all of my interlocutors must be in that same epistemic boat. It fails to occur to me that others might have had those “conversations”, made their judgments on the issue one way or another, and have now justifiably moved on to a different conversation entirely.

In any case, this equivocation on the sense of the term “moving the conversation forward” is a peeve precisely because of its rhetorically obscuring quality. Instead of openly proceeding with the very understandable and commendable goal of trying to debate or persuade someone into a position you hold as true, or out of one you believe is false, we falsely move under the more “humble” guise “moving the conversation forward.” In which case, if you don’t want to be “open” to a new way of thinking because you’ve already given it due thought, well, isn’t that still so “narrow” and backwards and stultifying to the conversation which ought to be going “forward”? It becomes a rather disingenuous rhetorical tool to move the conversation in your direction without owning your intended aims.

I have no solution here other than to commend a greater sense of self-awareness regarding our speech and intentions. There are times when you enter the conversation in order to learn, or in order to move beyond current paradigms, or, quite legitimately, in order to persuade others of a position you honestly hold.

Soli Deo Gloria

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