Many years ago a phrase used by a friend stuck in my mind: Interrupting my attempt to criticise some aspect of his beliefs, he asked why we should waste time on ‘an already conversation’. Ever since, from time to time, I have spotted this habit of diminishing our lives by replaying in our thoughts, statements and interactions conversations we have already had with outcomes we already know.
Two recent examples concern my radio series Agree to Differ - which ended on Wednesady - while a third is currently headline news.
It has been encouraging to receive constructive feedback on the programme, but until earlier this week nobody had told me about the dismissive review by that doyen of radio critics, Gillian Reynolds of the Daily Telegraph. Here is what she said:
We say we long for reasoned exchange, cases set out clearly so we can make up our own minds. Yet when we get such a programme, as with Radio 4’s new series Agree to Differ (Radio 4, Wednesday, repeated Saturday) it just seems dull….. This journey didn’t go far. Snore score: four.
How terribly unfair! I have about thirty tweets, emails, blog comments from people who found the programme interesting, not to mention the kind things my friend and family said. As usual critics don’t care what the audience think, they are too busy grinding their various axes.
It was as this narrative was feverishly gripping me that a small very annoying voice said ‘listen to yourself; just like everyone who has a bad review’. I tried to shut it out but the voice went on to suggest that perhaps the programme was of interest only to a particular section of motivated listeners (including people loyal to me). Then - worst thought of all – wasn’t it true there had been some longueurs in the first episode from which we tried to learn lessons for the others?
Such moments of insight are not common for me. Generally I conform to the position outlined by Jeff Goldblum’s character in conversation with Tom Berenger’s character in the film The Big Chill:
Goldblum: I don't know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalisations. They're more important than sex.
Berenger: Ah, come on. Nothing's more important than sex.
Goldblum: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalisation?
The good thing about interrupting an already conversation with myself was that I didn’t spurt out my indignation to friends only to see that awful moment when people’s mouths are saying ‘oh yes, I so agree’ while their eyes are saying ‘when will this poor deluded fool finally shut up’.
Anyway, we did learn from the first episode and I am confident that few people who listen to the final programme on ‘who should own Jerusalem’ will find it dull. Indeed you will hear me trying - with occasional success - to persuade my guests to abandon their already conversation.
In inviting a pro-Israeli rabbi and a Palestinian performance poet to agree what they disagree about, I try to make the conversation move somewhere new and interesting. But despite my entreaties the protagonists keep not only asserting the rightness of their own cause but seeking to rubbish the position of their opponent.
Then on Wednesday I listened to the summary on the Today programme of yesterday’s Parliamentary debate about the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal. Yvette Copper used it as an opportunity to expose the failings of the system of Police and Crime Commissioners while Theresa May used it as an opportunity to attack the culture and performance of the local Labour Party.
Once again the Commons proves itself the academy of already conversations.
I wonder does anyone in Labour’s senior ranks hear a little voice in their heads. This might interrupts their narrative directing blame onto local individuals and the Government to say this:
‘What happened in Rotherham was extreme but in essence the combination of local authority incompetence, political cowardice and self-interest is typical of what has happened for decades in so many Labour rotten boroughs and is still happening in some. We must use this as an opportunity to examine ourselves as a Party and commit to destroying once and for all the culture that breeds such inhumanity and irresponsibility’.
This week, for the RSA Journal, I had the privilege of interviewing Theodore Zeldin, philosopher, historian and author, amongst many other works, of a wonderful book ‘Conversation – How Talk can Change our Lives’. He makes the point that for conversations to be powerful for us and for the world we inhabit we must enter them with the hope and expectation that we will emerge with our view of the world in some way altered: In other words the reverse of the intent of an already conversation.
The RSA’s new idea ‘The Power to Create’ argues that the potential now exists (but is not yet fulfilled) for every citizen to be the author of their own lives. A responsibility we have in pursuing the creative life is to resist the lure of already conversations with ourselves, with our friends and, perhaps most of all, with our competitors and opponents.
This isn’t easy. We could do with some high profile role models to show us the way: Which is a subtle but important reason why the general quality of our political and media discourse continues to impoverish our lives.
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.
Matthew Taylor Anthony Painter
Instead of hoping for national politicians to solve our hardest problems, we need to ask them for the final pieces of a puzzle we have started to solve together.