Not long ago, my son told me that he had a problem with his camera’s sensor.
“No problem!” I said helpfully. “Just ask one of the photographers at the newspaper. I’m sure they will give you good advice.”
“That’s okay,” he said.
OK, I thought. Then I “recalculated” the maternal version of Google Maps. Son is 21 and doesn’t want mom’s help. I get it. “How about asking one of your counselors at school?” I recommended.
“Why would I do that when I could just watch You Tube?” he asked.
Yes of course. Why would anyone even want to talk to anyone when YouTube handles everything for you and you never have to engage in that prickly, cumbersome, exhausting activity called human conversation?
I understand that I have a taciturn son, no doubt the result of his mother’s talkativeness. But I’m afraid my son’s evasion isn’t an isolated case. Fewer and fewer teenagers and young adults want to have a conversation, safe in the knowledge that they will say the wrong thing in this sensitive, easily offended world.
Two-thirds of teens surveyed in 2018 said they would rather text their friends online than see them in person. Copywriting is short, precise and direct. It doesn’t risk anything. In particular, it risks disappointment. A text that is too serious can easily be dismissed as a joke with a “JK”. Most importantly, a text is without the 70-93% of our conversational scholars who are non-verbal.
Self-protection rather than self-disclosure has become the default of our younger generation.
We don’t know how to talk to each other anymore. We’re too scared.
In a fascinating interview with 12 public school teachers from The New York Times, a reporter asked the group to use one word to describe their “greatest concern for the United States.” Here are some of their responses: Extremist, divided, unbalanced, rioting, polarized, unjust. When asked why so many words focused on division, one teacher said, “I don’t think we even have the art of conversation anymore. My students can’t talk to each other. You can’t talk to adults.”
Part of this is the corrosive effect of technology on society and our willing participation in this cultural degeneration. If we cave in to the techno companies whose sole mission is to get us all addicted to gadgets, if we calm 2-year-olds with phones and tablets, we’re eating at the very core of what binds us together as humans. I can’t go to another family dinner where one member is distracted by the incessant nagging and yawning of some infernal device they’re attracted to. It’s hard to know which is worse, the disruption itself or ignoring that such conversation sabotage is rude.
Second is the position too many of us have taken as victims-waiting. The frequency of the victim antennae is so high that many young people are afraid that they will not only say the wrong thing, but the offensive one. You can bully someone. You can “trigger” someone. They risk the millennial version of excommunication: they will be “annulled”.
A study conducted by Knight Foundation and Ipsos in January found that 65% of college students felt that today’s campus climate prevents people from speaking their minds for fear of offending someone.
Worse, none of this happens in person. If my son’s experience is usual, most of it happens online, after the comment has been heard and when it can be picked up like a rotting side of beef.
This doesn’t help. It doesn’t promote the virtues we need, including standing up for oneself, defending one’s position, and most importantly, being able to ask for forgiveness.
“I’m sorry. Can you explain where you’re from?”
In his new book, Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard, Bo Seo, a 28-year-old two-time world champion debater, argues that our problem isn’t that we disagree, it’s that we “disagree.” .” He maintains that refutation or counter-argument must be fruitful and respectful. Rebuttal, he writes, is “an act of confidence not only in ourselves but also in our opponents, one that contained the judgment that the other person deserved our frankness and that they would receive it with grace.”
Imagine if you could actually disagree in a worthwhile and personal way if you only learned to do it well.
We need less technology and more humanity. The best schools can offer students is a device-free classroom and a robust debating team.
Tracey O’Shaughnessy writes Sunday Reflections. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.