Not long ago, my son told me there was something wrong with his camera sensor.
“No problem!” I said helpfully. “Just ask a photographer in the newspaper. I’m sure they’ll give you good advice.”
“It’s okay,” he said.
Well, I think. Then I did a “recalculation” of the master google maps. The 21-year-old son does not want help from his mother. I get it. “How about asking one of your advisors at school?” I suggested.
“Why should I do this when I can watch You Tube?” he asked.
Yes of course. Why would anyone talk to anyone when YouTube does it all for you and you never have to engage in that tricky, awkward, exhausting activity known as “human conversation”?
I understand that I have a taciturn son, no doubt the result of his mother’s talkativeness. But I worry that my son’s avoidance of the conversation is not singular. Fewer teens and young adults want to have a conversation, and of course, in this sensitive, easily offended world, they will say the wrong thing.
Two-thirds of teens surveyed in 2018 said they would rather text a friend online than meet them in person. Text messages are short, precise, and direct. It doesn’t have any risk. In particular, it risks disappointment. Just kidding it’s easy to dismiss overly serious text with “JK”. Most importantly, a text is less than 70% to 93% non-linguistic as estimated by our dialogue scholars.
Self-protection, not self-disclosure, has become the default position of our younger generation.
We no longer know how to talk to each other. We are so scared.
In an excellent New York Times interview with 12 public school teachers, a reporter asked the group to use one word to describe their “biggest concern about America.” Here are some of their responses: extremism, division, imbalance, instability, polarization, injustice. When asked why so many words were focused on division, one teacher said, “I find we don’t even have the art of talking. My students can’t talk to each other. They can’t talk to adults.”
Part of this is the corrosive effect of technology on society, and our willingness to participate in this cultural degradation. When we succumb to tech companies whose sole mission is to keep us all hooked on devices, and when we placate two-year-olds with phones and tablets, we are eating away at the very essence of what unites us as human beings. I couldn’t go to another family dinner where one of the members was distracted by the constant bleating and yawning of some hellish contraption they were attracted to. It’s hard to know what’s worse, the distraction itself or ignorance of this kind of conversation-breaking is impolite.
Second is the position that too many of us take as victims in waiting. The frequency of victim tentacles is so high that many young people fear that they will not only say the wrong thing, but something offensive. They might hurt someone. They might “trigger” someone. They risk millennial excommunication: they will be “cancelled”.
A Knight Foundation-Ipsos study in January found that 65 percent of college students believe today’s campus climate discourages people from saying what they believe for fear of offending others.
To make matters worse, none of this happened in person. If my son’s experience is common, it mostly happens online, after hearing the comments, when it can be picked up like the rotten side of beef.
It doesn’t help. It discourages the virtues we need, including standing up for ourselves, defending our positions, and most crucially, having the opportunity to ask for forgiveness.
“I’m sorry. Can you explain where you’re from?”
Two-time world debate champion Bo Seo, 28, argues in his new book “Good Arguments: How Debates Teach Us to Listen and Be Heard” that our problem isn’t that we disagree, it’s that we “gravely disagree.” He insists believes that a rebuttal or rebuttal needs to be done productively and respectfully. The rebuttal, he wrote, was “a vote of confidence not only in ourselves but also in our adversaries, containing the judgment that another deserved our candor and that they would accept it gracefully.”
Imagine if you learned to do it well, you could actually disagree and disagree in person.
We need less technology and more humanity. The best things a school can offer its students are unequipped classrooms and strong debate teams.
Tracey O’Shaughnessy writes “Sunday Reflections.”reach her place@Rep-am.com.