“For millions of years man (sic) lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination, We learned to talk and we learned to listen.”The quote is from an advert that Hawking recorded for British Telecom in 1993. In that same advert Hawking went on to say that
“Mankind's greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this… All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”Speech, as Hawking notes, has perhaps been the greatest invention (or discovery) that we ever made. It has enabled us to organise ourselves collectively. It has enabled us to make sense of our world. It has enabled us to tap into our consciousness. It also enables us to be abusive, discouraging and vindictive.
So, what forms of speech do we use to continue “unleashing the power of our imagination” and allow us to “keep talking” without degenerating into abuse and intolerance.
Contained within the power of speech is the power of words. Lets look at four words that articulate the ways in which we talk with one another.
Many of the foundational institutions of our culture (certainly in the west, less so in indigenous cultures) are founded on debate. Our parliaments, our legal systems, and sometimes our educational systems, utilise the adversarial processes of debate. To debate means to take a viewpoint and then use your debating skills to defend that point of view and attack that of the opposition.
Its not surprising then that the word debate derives from the Old French word debatre – to fight. De meaning “down” and batre meaning “to beat.” Hence, literally, debate means to beat down.
Less antagonistic than debate, nevertheless discussion does have an oppositional sense to it, The word shares a common etymology with other English words such as percussion and concussion. Its Latin roots are in the words dis meaning apart and quatere – to shake, smash, scatter, disperse. Thus, discussion means to shake apart. The implication here is that the outcome of a discussion is one in which the topic of discussion is unpicked and broken down, often without anything creative emerging.
Conversation has a pleasantness about it, a sense of companionship, a feel-good element. It suggests friends sitting around a camp-fire or perhaps on a balcony sharing stories and comparing experiences.
Indeed, when we research the roots of this word we find exactly those elements. Again, it is Latin in origin combining the word com (= with) and the word vetere (to turn, to turn about) giving us the idea of “to turn about with.” For the Latins it connoted the act of living together, having dealerships with others.
Nice as it may be, conversation is not generally the wellspring of creative new thoughts, ideas or possibilities (although it could be the catalyst for dialogue – see below). It can open up our minds somewhat, but it falls short of “unleashing the power of our imagination.”
Dialogue however, does have the capacity to “unleash the power of our imagination.” The power of dialogue has been brought to our attention by David Bohm (the quantum physicist) and Mikhail Bakhtin (the Russian philosopher).
David Bohm described dialogue as a shared pool of meaning, that was constantly flowing and evolving giving us deeper levels of understanding. These new understandings, he said, were often unseen before the dialogue was entered into.
Bakhtin described the dialogic process as one in which:
“Truth is not born, nor is it to be found inside the head, of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction”For both theorists then, dialogue involves a shared approach, that is based on trust and respect and is aimed at discovering new thoughts, new ideas and the ability to create a new future.
Again, the etymology of the word is instructive. This time it comes from two Greek words: διά (dia), meaning through, across or inter, and λέγειν (légein) meaning to speak. From this we get a sense of the speech coming through us and between us, rather than being a possession of any one of us. Dialogue can sometimes be mistaken to mean speech between just two people. This is because of the mistaken assumption that the prefix is from the word di rather than dia.
Paulo Freire (the Brazilian educator) also did much to deepen our understanding of dialogue. For him, the educative and emancipatory process is intimately tied up with dialogue. His dialogic approach to education was that the learner and the teacher were engaged together in a process of discovery, both learning from each other to such a point that there was no distinction between teacher and learner. His approach presupposes an equality and a trust.
For Freire the participants approach dialogue in a manner in which they question what they know, and accept that in dialogue their thoughts will change and new knowledge will be created. He also claimed that
“if the structure does not permit dialogue (then) the structure must be changed.”… and we Learned to Listen
Returning to Hawking’s quote that began this blog. On the Pink Floyd album you don’t hear the final five words of that quote – “… and we learned to listen.”
Listening; true, creative, active listening may just be the hidden magic that we need to tap into in order for our communication to move from one end of the spectrum (debate) to the other (dialogue). One of the challenges of our times is to “unleash the power of our imagination,” and to do so we must enter into dialogue.
And, if our institutional structures (e.g. parliaments, law courts, schools etc) don’t allow for dialogue then we must change them.
1. The Division Bell, Pink Floyd, EMI Records, March 1994. The track which samples Stephen Hawking is “Keep Talking.”