How we talk

Several weeks ago, a preacher and social psychologist whom I follow on Twitter was on the look-out for people to follow who are hopeful “and not very sarcastic”.  And an earlier tweet read: “One sarcastic comment can kill an authentic cross-cultural dialogue. But one sincere comment can resurrect it”.  Based on the focus of her work and writing, I take “cross-cultural dialogue” primarily to mean conversation among Christians of color and white Christians in an American context.

Something felt off about opposing hope and sarcasm and in vilifying sarcasm as a killer of communication between diverse groups.  What I began thinking about, beyond the truism of how we say something means as much as what we say, is how keen we are to have important conversations on our terms.  We want the Other to present their case to us through our framework, not theirs.  We want their difference refracted through our own lens.

Recently, a friend of mine who grew up in America in a family of West African origin and I were discussing comments he’d made about a group of feminists in the city where he lives, comments I found offensive and misguided.  The thing was, he’d woven his criticisms of these feminists into an almost-poetic narrative touching on all kinds of themes, a narrative that was almost theatrical and seemed to blur the line with fiction.  Because Facebook for me is a medium for factual exchanges and updates, I had a hard time figuring out how to react and tried to do so within my framework – logical, “fact-based” criticisms of the things he’d said.  Rather than switch over and explain what exactly he was up to, which was my expectation, he kept on writing in the same fashion, and I’m glad he did.  He invoked the kind of story-telling traditions important to him and I bristled.  I wanted him to put that aside to deal with what I thought were legitimate criticisms that I had, but he refused.  I felt like a robot meant to run on logic having my circuits overloaded, beeping “does not compute”.

I thought more about the hyperbole and the weaving together of fact and fiction that he employed to make a point that he wanted to make.  What it came to be about was not whether I agree with the point, but on whose terms that point is meant to be discussed.  I reflected on my own expectations for reasoned discourse.  For me, there was little room for exaggeration, for fudging and blurring, or for fantastic imagery when it came to dealing with a ‘real’ issue like feminism.  That sort of thing, to me, belonged in cinema and in books dealing with life abstractly, emotionally.  And I thought more generally about other rhetorical techniques that rub me the wrong way.  I’m immensely bothered by repetition, for example.  If someone repeats the same word or phrase over verbatim, I’m annoyed by the excess.  Not only does it feel gratuitous somehow, but it also makes me think a certain way about the person doing it, like they’re not operating on the accepted grounds for discourse, like they’re being theatrical.

Alarmingly, when I began to analyze the origins of my distaste for hyperbole, repetition, intense emotion, etc. when they were ‘out of place’ – that is to say, not safely contained within literature, music, film or another ‘properly’ artistic medium, but ‘invading’ serious discourse- I realized that many of these features are hallmarks of styles of black preaching and figure prominently in black culture.  It probably sounds utterly naïve, but I sincerely hadn’t deeply considered that there was a latent racist element at play.  It’s now something I try to remain on guard against, remembering that engaging in dialogue with someone is not just an exchange of facts within an emotionally measured, precise frame of logic, because that kind of exchange and the expectations I have for how it should play out are not universal, not ahistorical, not without a history and a context.

So returning to the tweets of my acquaintance, I have to wonder whether the call for hope without sarcasm is not a similar false step in communication between groups with different goals and different ways of moving toward those goals.  I think of the importance of sarcasm and dark humor as means of coping and even of empowerment for many groups.  Some of my favorite Irish and Irish-American authors come to mind as do elements within the queer community, etc.

What I’m hoping for is that, if we’re seriously seeking reconciliation and dialogue with the Other, whoever that may be to us, we need to be aware of the frameworks we take for granted and be less frustrated when we communicate with people who don’t.  I think all too often we our unease with how things are communicated leads us to write off what is being communicated.


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