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How to host a difficult conversation?

Anne Dalke's picture

By 5 p.m. on Sunday, post as a comment here your reflections on one of the central questions raised by our reading of Coetzee's novella, The Lives of Animals: what does it tell us about the possibility that vegetarians and meat-eaters (or anyone w/ decidedly opposed views) can actually enter into productive dialogue?  Might some divisions be so deep that common academic training, common culture, or even familial ties can not bridge the gap? (Think of this as a warming-up for your next paper, due next weekend: “how much latitude can we allow”? At what point are we "allowed" to "call the question," and refuse further conversation?)


sara.gladwin's picture

Before I can answer this

Before I can answer this question, I feel like my first instinct is to interrogate “productivity.” What does “productivity” in this sense mean to us? What does it mean in the daily life sense? When I sit on a bench for an hour stuck in conversation with a friend instead of doing my homework, am I still being productive? If I choose to draw for three hours instead of writing a paper, am I still being productive? Personally, I have to answer yes for both of those questions, as having that conversation and drawing are both productive for my mental health, which at the end of the day, is crucial in whether any of my work gets done at all.


As for this question about whether or not it’s possible to bridge the gap… I’m struggling with whether or not the question itself is “productive.” I’m reminded of one my favorite quotes, from the Life of Pi:


“l’ll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" then surely we are also permitted to doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”


The general idea is that while doubt is useful- we eventually need to proceed forward. And for me, I feel that whether or not bridging the gap is productive cannot be where I dwell forever; as the reality is that I probably will never stop trying to bridge the gap.

aphorisnt's picture

Spot the Vegan

As a long-time vegetarian and recent vegan, I wold very much like to engage in a productive dialogue with my omnivorous friends and family and engage in a conversating around that point of difference, butI know  I sometimes struggle to bridge the gap. There exists a stereotypical image of the angry vegan, the person who preaches their beliefs ad nauseaum from a holier than thou antagonatory place–which has led to a game of sorts called "spot the vegan." Basically, any time someone puts something controversial related to animals/consumption in a public forum, folks wait for the vegan to show up on their high horse and yell down at the barbaric consumers of dead annimal flesh and how what they are doing is the worst thing ever and being vegan is so much better and everyone should stop eating meat because it's the right thing to do and...

I personally do what I can to avoid falling into that pattern and would like to believe I do a reasonably alright job of it, and I can't help but feel I sometimes get a little preachy, especially when I feel like my way of life is under attack or intense scrutiny by someone coming from a point of opposition. I don't want to be Elizabeth, the one who immediately rushes into her own discourse without leaving space for others to share their opinions because I feel nothing productive or meaningful can come from such a dialogue (or lack thereof). Communicating from a place of anger can be effective in that anger can inspire passion and serve as a driving force behind continued efforts to try and speak even in the face of heavy opposition, and that anger can also silence all other voices outside of oneself. For a dialogue to happen, all parties need and deserve space to explain their point of view–which means people need to take a step back and allow others to speak. And besides, maybe then people will lose interest in trying to get a rise out of the vegan for their game of internet bingo.

Jenna Myers's picture

Reactions towards The Lives of Animals- Respect for the dead

Coetzee raises the question "can we as vegetarians have any dialogue with the meat-eating world at all? Or are the divisions so deep that neither common academic training, nor common culture, nor even familial ties can bridge the gap?" After reading these sections I have to say that I was shocked by some of the points she brought up. Particularly the comparison of killing Jews in concentration camps during the Holocaust with killing animals. It is true that the Jews in the camps were treated like a herd cattle or a flock of sheep and that the killings were inhumane and dishonoring their lives. Coetzee speaks of the death of animals as being dishonorable and that all parts of the animal are used whether it’s for meat or for clothing. The Jews in the concentration camps were killed and their fat was made into soap and hair was used to stuff mattresses. I think that conversations between meat eaters and vegetarians are difficult conversations to have because both parties have different views whether they are cultural, religious, or their own personal beliefs. Regardless I feel that both parties should realize, honor, and respect the resources they receive especially when it comes to the food that they eat. The idea of honoring something whether it is a human life or an animal is something important to me. It's important to respect all living things and honor the lives they had. The biggest shock for me (as well as smilewithsh) about honor and respect from this reading was at the end of Lecture 2:


"It is as if I were to visit friends, and to make some polite remark about the lamp in their living-room, and they were to say, ‘Yes, it’s nice, isn’t it? Polish-Jewish skin it’s made of, we find that’s best, the skins of young Polish-Jewish virgins.’ And then I go to the bathroom and the soap-wrapper says, ‘Treblinka — lOO% human stearate.’ Am I dreaming, I say to myself? What kind of house is this? “ (56).


While this quote pertains to humans specifically I think it’s important to realize that we are doing the same thing to animals. We should respect both the lives of animals and the lives of humans. I think that would be the start of a productive dialogue between meat eaters and vegetarians. The idea of respect, honor, and valuing a life.


I also wanted to connect this idea to the reading we are doing for Econ about cemeteries. As we read through The Lives of Animals, smilewithsh and I started talking about cemeteries and respecting the dead. She was telling me that whenever she drives past a cemetery she turns off the radio in order to respect the lives of those who are buried at that cemetery. For me, I developed a habit when I was younger where I would hold my breath, close my eyes, and touch something red in the car whenever we passed by a cemetery. For me I do these things to pay respect so the dead who were once living people with families and their own stories. Touching something red to indicate the blood that once ran through their veins, sight to remember that these people used to walk around once on this planet taking in everything, and breathing to remember that these people once took in the same oxygen we are breathing in. One should always respect the dead whether it is a human or an animal. 

Lisa Marie's picture

Porosity and Latitude

This topic of having productive conversations with individuals who have differing perspectives reminded me of talking to my grandparents' who lie on the much more conservative end of the political spectrum. My grandfather, who has Rush Limbaugh playing on several TVs throughout his house is difficult to converse with--political conversations quickly escalate into heated debates. Our political differences (and the experiences that led us to hold them) are so vastly different that it can be difficult to feel like they are at all productive. I do somewhat agree with what Kelsey said--that meaningful change really happens at a systematic, group level--but I also think there is something to be said for engaging with someone who has a different opinion than you. While neither of the parties may fully change their minds, they may become more aware of the range of thoughts and ideas out there and perhaps eventually become more porous to them. It is also important to acknowledge the value of what people have to say, even if it may seem abrasive and extreme at the surface. It is ultimately up to us though as to how porous we become to ideas, thoughts, and positions that seem foreign or much different than our own. 

Anne Dalke's picture

"environmental negotiation"

Here’s something going on in my “other life” that might also be relevant to the question of how to have difficult conversations among people who view the world differently. A number of my good friends-and-close relatives are deeply invested in the Shenandoah Forum, which takes a collaborative approach to implementing smart land use planning; their goal is to preserve open spaces and quality of life in a rural, agriculturally-based community -- but you will never see "planning" or "watershed" in their mission statement, because words “like those” are red flags to many Shenandoah County farmers. The forum’s careful use of language derives from training they did @ the Institute for Environmental Negotiation @ UVA.  (What I'm not seeing in their literature, however, is any attention to questions of power difference, which Kelsey and Jo mention below as problematizing the ideal of "productive dialogue"....)

Simona's picture

Enough latitude? Too much?

I’m wondering if in the dialogue we’ve had about climate change (and science in general) I’ve actually not been allowing enough latitude—if my biases towards the “factual” science-based thought system are actually inhibiting me from being porous enough to consider other representations. But like Jo ponders below,  “perhaps a climate graph and a heart monitor have some interesting things to say about each other, perhaps we can draw conclusions about the ways they both perpetually change or something, but maybe, just maybe, there is nothing worth while in the similarity of shape.” I suppose I’m all for using other images and ideas to make “facts” more approachable and facilitate personal connections to the “facts,” because after all, if we can’t connect to the hockey stick graph at all, is it really able to inspire change? Or does it just factually show a trend? For me, that difference is where I draw the line—if we only use these metaphors to express concepts without also being transparent with the concepts themselves, a huge part of the dialogue is lost. We can’t discuss how the climate is changing…without knowing the climate is changing. But maybe we can’t take action on the changing climate without using metaphors to personally connect with the issue. Both seem important, in my mind. 

jo's picture

too much latitude?

While I couldn't name it, and Anne hadn't named it yet, I began to wonder about and feel this idea of 'latitude' and 'calling the question' in class when we disscussed climate change. I became increasingly frustrated by the visual connection made between the shape of the graph and the shape of the pristine-woods-on-a-lake scene, feeling that to do so glosses over much of reality. Then someone pointed out how the graph also looks like the soundwaves in Garage Band, like a heart moniter. "What could that mean?" we all speculated. I started thinking about how, in elementary school, they taught us to make connections while reading: text-to-text, text-to-self, text-to-world, etc. I remember being rewarded with an impressed smile any time I related some aspect of a book to my own life, or to another thought from another book. That reward has never gone away; rather, throughout my academic experience I have noticed increasingly the value placed on the ability to bring together two seemingly unrelated things and show what they have in common, or how they might speak to each other. While I don't refute the power of making connections (it is hugely important when considering issues of oppression and intersectionality, among other things), I feel like sometimes we (the royal We) go a little overboard. Or maybe we believe to strongly or hang on too tightly to our connections. I think it's important to continue to put things out there, bring up ideas even if you aren't 100% sure that the connection is strong. But at the same time it feels important to evaluate and reevaluate those claims. If I generalize everything I've learned in this 360, I think it comes down to two main topics or prinicples (theories?). The first is that everything is 'porous' and somehow connected in some way, AND/BUT the second is that nothing is as straightforward as it may seem - not even the porosity of our world.

This is all to say that, yes, perhaps a climate graph and a heart moniter have some interesting things to say about each other, perhaps we can draw conclusions about the ways they both perpetually change or something, but maybe, just maybe, there is nothing worth while in the similarity of shape. The question is, how much latitude do we allow? How many times can we leap from one connection to the other before we have lost the original idea or image or argument all together? In relation to what Sophia wrote above (below?), about finding common ground upon which to begin the conversation, I see great value in that approach AND I wonder if there are certain disagreements where the common ground would take us too far away from the initial debate (too much latitude?).

And in regards to this whole business of calling the question (which I know connects to what I've just written, though I currently don't have the drive/wherewithal to bridge that gap), WHO even gets to make that decision? Who gets that power and why?

Kelsey's picture

Difficult Conversations

Thinking about this question, I immediately feel conflicted.  On one hand, I believe in the importance of dialogue, of talking with people with different experiences and views to expand one's horizons and challenge the single stories that we too often hold in our heads.  But, on the other hand, the expectation that people are required to enter into "productive dialogue" with those who disagree with them, and that a fundamental part of that "productive dialogue" is politeness and respecting others' views even if you disagree, is often an oppressive construct.  Many groups of marginalized people are too often expected to engage in productive dialogue or debate with people whose views are harmful to them, who doubt their humanity or whether they deserve rights, and if those marginalized people ever get upset or refuse to engage in dialogue they are labeled as "angry" and "extremist" and are blamed for their own oppression, because they aren't being polite or respectful.  In circumstances like this, dialogue serves to support the existing power structure, to define the ways in which interactions should occur according to the status quo and force marginalized people into interactions that are fundamentally harmful to them.

 At the end of the day, how much does dialogue really accomplish?  The Lives of Animals would seem to suggest not much- no one's mind is visibly changed by Elizabeth Costello's words, and her attempts at speaking only seem to drive wedges between her and everyone else.  One could debate, and rightfully so, whether what Elizabeth engages in is actually dialogue, or productive dialogue, but that's not really what I want to get into.  Rather, while dialogue can be important and powerful, I think that often times we place too much emphasis on it, because we place too much emphasis on individuals and on changing individual minds.  Individuals are not the source of social inequalities; systems are.  And while systems are shaped by individuals and can be changed by them, systems are more than the individuals within them and will not change if we only engage in dialogue to change individual minds.  The systemic change required is on the group level, the community organizing level, the policy and institutional level.  And while dialogue can help create a culture where such systemic transformation is possible, if all we do is talk to individuals, nothing meaningful is ever going to change.  

pbernal's picture

Productive dialogue? Does

Productive dialogue? Does dialogue at all have to be productive? Dialogue, conversations, small commentary...isn't it all insightful is some way? Reading The Lives of Animals definitely gives off that feeling of why do I even bother expressing how I feel and what I think, but regardless...we can take in what others have to say. It doesn't necessarily mean we have to agree with, but it doesn't hurt to aknowdlege other people's opinions and thoughts. I don't find it to be a waste of time. It's about expanding and broading our opinions, being porous. 

Sophia Weinstein's picture

A Point of Agreement

In the book Ecoliteracy that we are reading for Education, there is a similar issue of division that arises regarding drilling for oil in the Coastal Plain of Alaska. Sarah James is a member of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, a group of people committed to protecting the earth and resouces of their indigenous Alaskan village. In a meeting with Alask Senator Lisa Murkowski, she wanted to discuss the issue of drilling in the Refuge, knowing the Murkowski is pro drilling. "James assessed, that challenging Murkowski directly would be doomed to fail. So she started from a point of agreement. 'I intriduced myself and thanked her for her good work on women's issues.'...Then she made a tactical transition, telling Murkowski that she thought of the Coastal Plain as a women's issue. 'It is a birthplace and nursing ground, and life is life'" (52).

Bridging a gap has so many variables that it feel speculative to say that it always is possible, or in some cases impossible, to enter productive dialogue. I think it all comes down to who is in the conversation. This may be more important than the actual issues being discussed. Being open to, and listening to other perspectives is a necessity. Discussions can delve much further when being porous when contemplating an issue, and not considering 'it' from just one aspect. Perhaps the Coastal Plain is mainly an environmental issue, but there are so many other aspects to it - women's issues, cultural and historical issues, endangered species. Nothing is separate. Embracing this is the first step to conversation, and the first step to affecting change through effective dialogue.