Saturday, August 5, 2023


From a review of “'Talking Cure,' an essay on the civilizing power of conversation”:
Political polarization quickly rears its head as a conversation killer, blocking the interchange of different perspectives that give a good talk its vitality. “To speak to the converted or the entirely familiar is not to truly converse,” Ms. Cohen writes. “It is to have one’s beliefs reinforced; it is self-soothing but not self-developing.” Mentioning the liberal pedigree of her family, Ms. Cohen writes gratefully about how her world view was expanded by a deep friendship and decades of thoughtful exchanges with a conservative colleague who has since died. “What sustained us in our disagreement,” she recalls, “was our mutual respect, indeed deep affection, for each other. It was a feeling that carried moral as well as emotional weight.”

Disagreement, Ms. Cohen suggests, is an essential element: “Good conversation digs deep into a subject, turns it over, examines it from angles that might otherwise remain in shadow, and presents hypotheses that may be wrong or even unpleasant, but thought-provoking.” Such openness to opposing viewpoints is now harder to come by in national life. “I used to routinely adopt the devil’s advocate position in class,” she writes, “but I find it harder to do this now, when dissenting viewpoints are less tolerated and when playful or ironic positions are taken literally.” ....

Her models of good conversation include Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century English wit whose bon mots were copiously recorded by his friend and biographer, James Boswell. But Ms. Cohen makes the point that Boswell was more than a mere stenographer of Johnson’s dinner-table pronouncements. He was a cheerful interlocutor, challenging Johnson’s assumptions in a way that brought out the best in his mentor. It’s a lesson in how conversation can reveal our truest, fullest selves.

The obstacles to good conversation can be as simple as the spaces in which we’d like to linger and chat. Ms. Cohen sighs at the popular fashion in industrial décor at restaurants, where steel tables and backless chairs don’t exactly invite warm exchanges. ....
The picture is a composite of two members of a group that famously engaged in good conversation.

Danny Heitman, "‘Talking Cure’ Review: The Joys of Spirited Conversation," Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2023.

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