A Broken System, Part III: Fighting Words

February 4, 2010

I’ve talked about the obvious need for a big change (Part I) and given a (slightly) smaller-scale suggestion for changing the USA’s relationship to race (Part II). Now, in Part III, I’ll cover what I believe to be the education system’s single biggest contribution to the injustice of our society: the creation of a culture of combative communication (i.e. turning everything into a “fight”).

So, among my many annoying habits, I have one which a certain ex of mine absolutely hated. It goes like this: I like to talk like I know what I’m talking about.

A prime example? This blog. I write with conviction and little hesitation. I seldom use words that convey doubt in the veracity of my own experiences and opinions. I sit down at my keypad and “tell it like it is.” I state my argument, then break it all down, piece by piece, to bolster the strength of my claims and words. That’s how I do it.

And that’s how I wrote the last paragraph. That’s precisely how most politically-angled blog-posts are written. It’s how articles and essays are written. How speeches are given and delivered.

In the U.S., it’s called “good writing.”

We’re taught to do this. To be like this. The U.S. educations system takes pride in emphasizing “critical thought.” And, on the surface, that’s something that is truly laudable. (*1)

However, the problem is in the delivery – and the message that is hidden within that delivery. When we are taught to write and speak publicly, we are taught to compete. We are taught effective techniques to “win” our “argument.” We are taught that hedging and displaying doubt is not an “effective” means of convincing somebody of our right-ness. If we do acknowledge a weakness, it is only to downplay it or offer up how that can be “easily rectified.”

On the flip – when we “listen” to the other side express their own “arguments” and opinions, we are taught to look for holes. Find their weaknesses and expose them. Find their stronger arguments and figure out how to break them down and “defend” against them. All effective tools when trying to “win” an argument or get a good grade on a paper.

But – outside of the classroom – we think the same rules apply. To successfully solve a problem, we think one must “win” the “argument” to get people to go along with them. Our government is structured around constant “debates” where differing sides try to “win” people over to their side, so they can get the majority necessary to put their plans into action.

But solving problems is not a fight. When we employ competitive, fighting tactics towards “solving problems,” we end up defeating ourselves and no true solution can be reached. We just get half-assed measures that barely touch on a symptom or two, ignoring underlying causes.

“Us” vs. “Them.” The constant battle of dichotomy. Two sides in a fight, playing to win. That’s the “American way.” (*2) It’s the mentality of conflict, and the language we employ in describing it all is telling.

Our schools are cultural training grounds, where we condition our kids to speak as if they are fully right and have the most important thing to say, and that what other kids have to say is unimportant – just a list of “arguments” with holes. We specifically teach kids not to listen – hear the words and write them down in order to destroy their significance, never let them touch you. Meaning replacing understanding, as if they’re the same.

So is it surprising that adults are so bad at communicating with each other? Romantic relationships reduced to running battles of blame and “arguments.” Conversations between peers becoming two sides waiting for their chances to speak. “Listening” to a friend share their experiences, then invalidating them by telling them “I totally understand what you mean” and “proving” that by immediately talking about our own experiences. (*3)

Take that to the next level – politics – and it only gets worse. Everything is a “debate.” There are no discussions or real conversations. No listening or understanding. Simply endless loops of arguments, ending in a double-forfeit stalemate. (*4)

This is not progress.

And so I propose a change. Once again – within the school walls. “Crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” We’ve been crazy for too long.

In the classroom, let’s teach true critical thinking – starting with the individual. Even the most perfect of souls is at least partially wrong – and understanding that is strength. Teach our kids to admit their own faulty logic – not to belittle or to defend – but to better understand the world. Critically examine our own beliefs, so that we may better empathize with those that can help us find cures.

Because the second part is teaching kids to really listen. To value other people’s opinions and to realize that even the most die-hard bigot is going to say something true and important. Listen to understand, as opposed to focusing on meanings and mistakes and arguments to be made.

And once we’ve covered those two, we reach the ultimate goal – true conversation, dialogue, and partnership. If you want to truly find an end to racism, you’re not going to do it by getting all your “liberal” friends to agree with you. You’re going to have to have some conversations of understanding with the “other” side. But you’re not going to be able to do that as long as they are just “the other side” – a group of people that need to be changed and “convinced.” So our kids must be taught to go into conversations with a willingness to be convinced. Not to “debate.” Not to “prove” or “disprove.” Just to understand.

And it can be done – if you start young enough. Kids all want to be heard – really heard – and they can tell the difference between being listened to and heard. They can also empathize. If you catch them before listening for meaning alone has been hard-wired into them, they can learn to value other people’s opportunities to speak.

And if you get to the kids, in only a few decades you will have gotten to all of the adults who make change in this world.

Again – this is not a simple solution. To do this right would be a logistical nightmare. To convince people to put this into practice, even worse. It’s a pipe-dream. But it is truly possible and could truly lead to a large-scale change in culture. And that’s the only way we can stop acting so crazy, thinking how we talk to and “communicate” with each other is ever going to bring about solutions.

It’s time for a culture-shift. A conscious, directed one. Top-down is never going to happen – especially not in a democratic government. The only real solution is bottom-up. It can and should start in our schools – but, barring that, I challenge any readers to do their part and let it start here, now.

Critically examine your own beliefs. Train yourselves to listen for understanding. Come to the table looking to be changed. Teach your own kids to do the same. Then watch the world around you take a different shape.

True revolution begins with a slow simmer at the bottom of the pot . . .

(*1) In comparison to other national systems that I happen to be knowledgeable of . . .

(*2) Can you all say "two-party system"?

(*3) Sad how even “being there” for a friend turns into a form of conflict (trying to argue how well you understand . . .).

(*4) Even on Racialicious, I read so many comments by folks who desperately want their own experiences validated; and in doing so, they break down and invalidate another human being’s experiences.

(*5) To finish it all up, and in the spirit of this topic, let me say here that I am likely wrong on some level . . . and my fear – that writing that completely negates this entire post – demonstrates the power of my own “argument-training.”



  1. As always very interesting and thoughtful. I’ve been sort of struggling with this myself b/c I’ve come to realize, on Facebook of all things, that I have many “friends” (mostly acquaintences) who though I knew they might be or tend towards Republicanism, who are waaayyy more “conservative”* and right-wing than I thought. I actually had to end my Facebook “friendship” and acquaintence with a friend of a friend, who fortunately no longer lives in my area, b/c she called me delusional, bitter and crazy b/c I disagreed that Obama is a socialist, and questioned her understanding of the term. It just got ugly fast with the back and forth. I did restrain myself from name calling as well, and sometimes I can go with the, “let’s agree to disagree” but once she questioned my sanity it was over.

    Since then I’ve been wrestling with why my thoughts are so different from some of my friends and though I’ve dabbled occasionally in trying to “understand” folks on the right most often I just question to myself where on earth they are coming from. It is difficult. I also keep trying to give some of the Republicans in Congress the benefit of the doubt but especially lately they’ve been really hard to trust and except for one who I recently read about (I think his name is Mark Pryor) who seemed to have some positive ideas and be prepared to cooperate and work with the other side,lately it just seems like all they do is score talking points, distorting and just being overall sore losers (just like I found too many to be sore winners in the GWB era and prior to that during the Gingrich “Republican Revolution”. I’m starting to wonder if I’m just being close-minded.

    As for Racialicious, I’ve sort of given up on that sight, though I used to read it post to post daily, and it lead me to you and several other anti-racist and black blogs that I love, partly b/c of exactly what you describe; people invalidating others experiences and sometimes being outright dismissive and even hostile to those who had the tiniest disagreement with them or different understanding. Not to say that everyone does that, and often I found the comments section to be very illuminating and to find others who had similar experiences, but I started to see too many people doing this to each other and sometimes myself being dismissed by others, or even finding myself doing the same thing, I totally stopped commenting for awhile and just reading and eventually just decided to walk away. I also began to be tired of seeing some of the same writers over and over, especially those who I felt weren’t always as illuminating as they could be and one regular writer in particular who I often found to be very dismissive and condescending towards those with different opinions. Of course it is usually more civilized there than in other spaces but I lost my deep sense of trust and feeling “safe” there after time.

  2. awesome.

  3. Hmmm to start in the classroom to encourage changes at home for future generations….

    This alone could be debated by many – as in whose responsibility; parents or teachers? I think the only thing any one person can do is create change within themselves in essence a catalyst that will impress upon others. In other words, both parents and teachers could take part in this role.

    Not being a parent, yet. And looking within my own career I have always felt in education there is a battle between student services and administration. The top makes decisions and the bottom scramble to encourage change. In order for any of that to happen you have to have any ally with someone in administration.

    When one of “us” switch to administration we call it “going to the dark side”. As of late, I have felt a small twinge of going to the “dark side” so that I can be ally based out of my own frustration with the system. Based on the question I asked myself the other day- “How can I make the biggest impact?” Now this is only a pondering….

    I have found that it takes personal responsibility to create that change and if each person could commit to making a difference this could happen. Furthermore, through role modeling and encouragement of best practices/sharing information with colleagues could encourage a new era to in teaching and in turn assisting the development of healthy adulthood.

  4. […] By Guest Contributor CVT, originally published at Choptensils […]

  5. […] By Guest Contributor CVT, originally published at Choptensils […]

  6. […] I could really do more than begin to analyze that post in terms of my own life, I came across A Broken System, Part III: Fighting Words, via Samia, and again, […]

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