Legendary Physicist David Bohm on the Paradox of Communication, the Crucial Difference Between Discussion and Dialogue, and What Is Keeping Us from Listening to One Another

Art by Salvador Dalí from a rare 1969 edition of Alice in Wonderland

If we are to live in harmony with ourselves and with nature, we need to be able to communicate freely in a creative movement in which no one permanently holds to or otherwise defends his own ideas.”

“Words,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her abiding meditation on the magic of real human communication, “transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.”But what happens in a cultural ecosystem where the hearer has gone extinct and the speaker gone rampant? Where do transformation and understanding go?

What made, for instance, James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s superb 1970 dialogue about race and identity so powerful and so enduringly insightful is precisely the fact that it was a dialogue — not the ping-pong of opinions and co-reactivity that passes for dialogue today, but a commitment to mutual contemplation of viewpoints and considered response. That commitment is the reason why they were able to address questions we continue to confront with tenfold more depth and nuance than we are capable of today. And the dearth of this commitment in our present culture is the reason why we continue to find ourselves sundered by confrontation and paralyzed by the divisiveness of “us vs. them” narratives. “To bother to engage with problematic culture, and problematic people within that culture, is an act of love,” wrote the poet Elizabeth Alexander in contemplating power and possibility. Krista Tippett calls such engagement generous listening. And yet so much of our communication today is defined by a rather ungenerous unwillingness to listen coupled with a compulsion to speak.

The most perennially insightful and helpful remedy for this warping of communication I’ve ever encountered comes from the legendary physicist David Bohm (December 20, 1917–October 27, 1992) in On Dialogue (public library) — a slim, potent collection of Bohm’s essays and lectures from the 1970s and 1980s, exploring the alchemy of human communication, what is keeping us from listening to one another, and how we can transcend those barriers to mutual understanding.

Decades before the social web as we know it and long before Rebecca Solnit came to lament how our modern noncommunication is changing our experience of solitude and communion, Bohm cautions:

In spite of this worldwide system of linkages, there is, at this very moment, a general feeling that communication is breaking down everywhere, on an unparalleled scale… What appears [in the media] is generally at best a collection of trivial and almost unrelated fragments, while at worst, it can often be a really harmful source of confusion and misinformation.

He terms this “the problem of communication” and writes:

Different groups … are not actually able to listen to each other. As a result, the very attempt to improve communication leads frequently to yet more confusion, and the consequent sense of frustration inclines people ever further toward aggression and violence, rather than toward mutual understanding and trust.

Art by Ralph Steadman from a rare edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Suggesting that the difficulty might arise from our “crude and insensitive manner of thinking about communication and talking about it,” Bohm sets out to restore the necessary subtlety by reclaiming the true meaning of communication and its supreme mastery, dialogue:

“Communication” … is based on the Latin commun and the suffix “ie” which is similar to “fie,” in that it means “to make or to do.” So one meaning of “to communicate” is “to make something common,” i.e., to convey information or knowledge from one person to another in as accurate a way as possible.

[…]

Nevertheless, this meaning does not cover all that is signified by communication. For example, consider a dialogue. In such a dialogue, when one person says something, the other person does not in general respond with exactly the same meaning as that seen by the first person. Rather, the meanings are only similar and notidentical. Thus, when the second person replies, the first person sees a difference between what he meant to say and what the other person understood. On considering this difference, he may then be able to see something new, which is relevant both to his own views and to those of the other person. And so it can go back and forth, with the continual emergence of a new content that is common to both participants. Thus, in a dialogue, each person does not attempt to make common certain ideas or items of information that are already known to him. Rather, it may be said that the two people are making something in common, i.e., creating something new together.

But of course such communication can lead to the creation of something new only if people are able freely to listen to each other, without prejudice, and without trying to influence each other. Each has to be interested primarily in truth and coherence, so that he is ready to drop his old ideas and intentions, and be ready to go on to something different, when this is called for.

Art by Sydney Pink from Overcoming Creative Block

Such communication in the service of creating something new, Bohm argues, takes place not only between people but within people. He illustrates this with an example that calls to mind Alan Lightman’s beautiful reflection on the creative sympathies of art and science, and writes…

more…

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