I came across the term ideal speech situation the other day, while doing research for a podcast episode.
The core concept of this idea is that we’re most capable of benefitting from conversation when there are implied, mutually beneficial rules for the interaction.
These rules are that everyone capable of participating is allowed to do so, that any and every assertion made by anyone is open for questioning, that anyone involved can introduce new assertions (which can then be questioned), and that there should be nothing keeping anyone from fully expressing themselves while adhering to these implied rules — they shouldn’t feel socially or culturally pressured to not speak, or to not question, and they shouldn’t feel coerced by the threat of physical or psychological or social retribution for what they say.
I love this idea. Not because it’s perfect, as there are still numerous games you can play with these rules that would result in advantages for one participant or another, or that would nullify a lot of the potential positive effects. I love it because of what it’s attempting to accomplish, and how clearly it addresses some of the problems we’re struggling with as a diverse, interconnected species, today.
There are reasons we don’t speak as clearly as we might. There are reasons we don’t question certain authorities and refrain from rocking the boat, even when rocking might be just what we need.
There are social standards that set out what we can safely talk about and what is considered to be taboo. There are labels we apply to people who don’t follow these strictures, and labels we apply to people who follow them too assiduously.
We fail to include voices whose words might be relevant. We fail to question societal norms and traditional values. We fail to introduce all possible perspectives, even when those perspectives might better illuminate that which we’re trying to see more clearly.
Perhaps most confoundingly, we very often enter conversations in bad faith. We enter, not with the intent to learn or grow or come to the most ideal conclusion — we show up to win.
We plant semantic and logical traps. We attack the other person’s character or conflate their ideas on one subject with their ideas on another. We label them, brand them, define them from the outside.
We trip those with whom we’re speaking and claim that their stumbling means we won the race.
That’s not the point of a productive discussion. Or rather, it shouldn’t be.
Entering a discussion with the proper intent is a key part of actually accomplishing something, and that’s a standpoint that seems to be lacking in essentially all public discourse, not to mention dialogue at the interpersonal level.
As I said, this approach isn’t perfect. But it does seem like an idea worth remembering at the outset of future conversations. One of the more difficult struggles we’re going to face as a globe-spanning species in the coming decades is sorting out how to interact and coexist with people who believe differently than us. Coming up with a shared appreciation for civil and gainful discourse, and establishing guidelines for such discussions, would be a step toward that goal.