Conversation or Violence

Dec 14, 2018

We have a choice. We have two options as human beings. We have a choice between conversation and war. That’s it. Conversation and violence. (Sam Harris)

You push me and then I push you back. If I do not intentionally restrain myself, I will naturally push you harder than you pushed me. If then you push me back, without intentionally restraining yourself, your push will be even harder than mine. Without deliberate modulation, the escalation will continue. To speak scientifically, if the “top down” control system in the pre-frontal cortex of my brain fails to modulate my actions, especially if there is an anger-provoking stimulus like a push, violence ensues.  These reactions are chemical, and they are natural.

Rage can be dangerously satisfying and also treacherously entertaining. It is easier to break things than to fix them. But civilization is, in fact, restraint. An undisciplined brain is a stupid brain, but it is never too late to develop and train the mind in order to find attunement and harmony with one’s surroundings. Having the discipline required to drop one’s own nagging worries and truly listen to another person is a positive act in the world, an act of love and trust.  Perhaps our job on this earth is to fix things by listening accurately.

The way to discipline the brain is to learn to balance exuberance with restraint. To be effective participants in our own lives and in the lives of those around us requires us to cultivate and encourage exuberance, curiosity and appetite. But we also must learn to consciously temper our passions with discipline and restraint.

Children are notoriously spontaneous and can generate beautiful drawings, dances, watercolors, songs and sculptures full of life and imagination. And then, well, we get older and we get worse at making expressive art. We become self-conscious. We start to doubt ourselves and we lose our spontaneity and ease of play. We lose the unaffected relationship to the expressive act.  We also begin to react to the perceived judgement of others, a development that requires a huge effort to overcome.

I do not think that I am speaking only for myself in saying that what also happens as we get older is that we tend to calcify our beliefs. We become certain that we are right. And this is where the trouble begins and where violence can ensue. Certainty eventually leads to violence.  It is only through exploring the doubt in ourselves that we are led to empathy and compassion.

Artists must consciously cultivate exuberance, delight and passion, otherwise their work has no energy, no power. Exuberance is key, but left unchecked, it can also lead to breaking things. If tempered and crafted, exuberance can engender wild dances and gorgeous paintings. Unmoderated, it may lead to aggression, emergent crowd behavior and violence. 

The composer John Cage was a world-class conversationalist. He loved the pluralistic delights of conversation, but he did not care for debate. For him, a conversation is a work of art with more than one creator. From the Latin, the word conversation suggests “to turn with.”  By the end of a conversation you might well have switched points of view with your partner; you may have turned together.  Philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott said, “Debate is angular, conversation circular and radiant of the underlying unity.” Conversation does not flit from one subject to another, rather it is sustained with intention and attention. It demands cooperation. In a debate, argument takes priority and the activity assumes a right answer, or that one argument has greater validity than the other.  While debate is often between two options, conversations are more open to multiple points of view.  Conversation demands skill, patience and openness and requires us to listen for nuance and open spaces. We learn to recognize other voices. We learn to listen.

The artistic process is a form of conversation that also requires self-control and cooperation. We must develop a combination of ample enthusiasm and intentional restraint.  Without passion and excitement, the results of our efforts will be weak and lack energy. Our passions must be intentionally counterbalanced with restraint, which is developed through technique and is capable of harnessing and shaping vast amounts of energy and enthusiasm. Technique requires study, patience, listening and practice. Without conscious moderation and precise technique, our expressions appear chaotic and will be difficult for an audience to grasp. Self-restraint is a technique to temper the excitement and to fashion meaningful expression.

When I was in my early twenties, I loved to take dance classes. I was a terrible dancer, but I enjoyed the challenge of the moves and the steps that were always just beyond my capabilities. When I first moved to New York City after college, I regularly attended classes at the Merce Cunningham studio and the Eric Hawkins studio. I studied with Elaine Summers and I signed up for a six-week intensive at the Alwin Nikolais/Murray Lewis dance studio just north of Union Square. The Nikolais/Lewis space was vast, as I remember it, the width of a city block. I trained every day with what seemed like a hundred anorexic dancers. One day, as we were all moving across the floor in various combinations, Alwin Nicolais himself entered the studio. By this time in the mid 1970s, he was getting on and not personally teaching very much. He surveyed the class and suddenly called a halt to the action. Nicolais pointed at me and spoke in a loud voice, “See her?  She can’t dance, but she can move!” I was humiliated. It took me years to realize that he was actually giving me a compliment.

Perhaps part of the reason that I am a theater director is that I love watching gifted performers accomplishing feats that I can only dream of doing personally. At the time of Alwin Nikolais’s comment, I enjoyed moving and was full of exuberance, but I lacked the necessary technique and talent to be a dancer.

Learning technique, cultivating the potent combination of exuberance and restraint, while practicing patience and perseverance demands a deep commitment to the ongoing human conversation. At our best, we long for real exchange because we desire an encounter with the best parts of other people and ourselves.  We want to be seen, heard and liked by another person. In the best of times, we mutually help one another in a joint quest for truth and subtlety. And yet, in our present moment, one of the chief goals or strategies within the arguments in the current public arena is to invalidate the story of one’s opponent. This is because of the rhetorical tactic of breaking down one’s adversary. Instead of engaging other people’s arguments on their own terms, we look for character flaws and other ad hominem attacks that can excuse us from having a straightforward conversation. 

Despite humanity’s perpetual progress in the global arena, restraint has nevertheless become imperative to our very survival. To voluntarily tame our passions and constrain our thirst could possibly save the world from ecological disaster and much, more. Limits help and they are increasingly necessary. For example, in the 1960s, the Netherlands was as car-dependent a country as any other European nation. But due to conscious change and a disciplining of the mind, today the Dutch make 30 percent of all urban trips by bicycle. In the United States bike trips account for less than 1 percent. The Dutch are consequently healthier and wealthier, and their cities are more attractive and habitable and less polluted than if they had continued to fill their roads and lives with cars.

Détente is the easing of hostility or strained relations, especially between countries. In 1997, at the Chemical Weapons Convention, a decision was made to forbid the development of chemical weapons.  There was a recognition that eventually these weapons would be easy to copy and deliver to other countries where they could do terrible damage.  The Convention represents a decision to exercise restraint by foregoing the development of such weapons. And yet there are unscrupulous and vicious dictators who have used them in the past five years on their own subjects and neighbors.

As Americans, we value freedom, but perhaps we need to examine what freedom actually means. Possibly freedom is not doing whatever we want whenever we want. Perhaps the prison of our own undeveloped habits and undisciplined brains is what keeps us from authentic freedom. If the antidote to impulse is self-restraint, we can, with practice, learn how to respond rather than react.  A response is more active, and it can change the direction of a conversation. Maybe learning to engage in real conversation is the necessary corrective to careening clashes and the escalation violence. It is an experience that demands leaps of logic, respect and the recognition that in the art and practice of conversation, the other person comes first. We learn to take turns talking. When a Christian and a Buddhist have a really good conversation, they become better Christians and Buddhists.  If we look for what is valuable to the other person, we may find out what is valuable to ourselves.