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Discussion Versus Controversy

Many people object to discussion, but they are invariably those on the
midway rounds of the conversational ladder; people to whom the joy of
the amicable intellectual tussle is unknown, and to whom the highest
standards of the art of talking do not appeal. Where there is much
intellectual activity discussion is sure to arise, for the simple reason
that people will not think alike. Polite discussion is the most
difficult and the most happy attainment of society as it is of
literature; and why should oral discussion be less attractive than
written? Dr. Johnson used to express unbounded contempt for all talk
that was not discussion; and Robert Louis Stevenson has given us frankly
his view: "There is a certain attitude, combative at once and
deferential, eager to fight yet most averse to quarrel, which marks out
at once the talkable man. It is not eloquence, nor fairness, nor
obstinacy, but a certain proportion of all these that I love to
encounter in my amicable adversaries. They must not be pontiffs holding
doctrine, but huntsmen questing after elements of truth. Neither must
they be boys to be instructed, but fellow-students with whom I may argue
on equal terms." From Mr. John B. Yeats, one of the many Irishmen who
have written tellingly on this interesting subject of human intercourse,
we have: "Conversation is an art, as literature is, as painting is, as
poetry is, and subject to the same laws from which nothing human is
excluded, not even argument. There is literature which argues, and
painting which argues, and poetry which argues, so why not conversation
which argues? Only argument is the most difficult to mold into the most
blessed shape of art."

Some people conceive an everlasting opposition between politeness and
earnest discussion. Politeness consists, they think, in always saying,
"yes, yes," or at most a non-committal "indeed?" to every word addrest
to them. This is apt to be our American vice of conversation, where, for
lack of courage in taking up discussion, talk often falls into a series
of anecdotes. In Germany the tendency is to be swept away in discussion
to the point of a verbal dispute.

There is no greater bore in society than the person who agrees with
everybody. Discussion is the arena in which we measure the strength of
one another's minds and run a friendly tilt in pleasing
self-assertiveness; it is the common meeting-ground where it is
understood that Barnabas will take gentle reproof from Paul, and Paul
take gentle reproof from Barnabas. Those who look upon any dissent from
their views as a personal affront to be visited with signs of resentment
are no more fit for brilliant talk than they are fit for life and its
vicissitudes. "Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul
in peace," it is true; but he also keeps himself dead to all human
intercourse and as colorless in the world as an oyster. "Too great a
desire to please," says Stevenson, "banishes from conversation all that
is sterling.... It is better to emit a scream in the shape of a theory
than to be entirely insensible to the jars and incongruities of life and
take everything as it comes in a forlorn stupidity." This is equivalent
to telling the individual who treads too nicely and fears a shock that
he had pleased us better had he pleased us less, which is the subtle
observation of Mr. Price Collier writing in the North American Review:
"It is perhaps more often true of women than of men that they conceive
affability as a concession. At any rate, it is not unusual to find a
hostess busying herself with attempts to agree with all that is said,
with the idea that she is thereby doing homage to the effeminate
categorical imperative of etiquette, when in reality nothing becomes
more quickly tiresome than incessant affirmatives, no matter how
pleasantly they are modulated. Nor can one avoid one of two conclusions
when one's talk is thus negligently agreed to: either the speaker is
confining herself entirely to incontradictable platitudes, or the
listener has no mind of her own; and in either case silence were
golden. In this connection it were well to recall the really brilliant
epigram of the Abbe de Saint-Real, that 'On s'ennuie presque toujours
avec ceux que l'on ennuie.' For not even a lover can fail to be bored
at last by the constant lassitude of assent expressing itself in twin
sentiments to his own. 'Coquetting with an echo,' Carlyle called it.
For, tho it may make a man feel mentally masterful at first, it makes
him feel mentally maudlin at last; and, as the Abbe says, to be bored
one's self is a sure sign that one's companion is also weary."

Tho polite dissent is desirable in discussion, flat contradiction is
contemptible. Dean Swift affirms that a person given to contradiction is
more fit for Bedlam than for conversation. In discussion, far more than
in lighter talk, decency as well as honor commands that each partner to
the conversational game conform to the niceties and fairness of it. "I
don't think so," "It isn't so," "I don't agree with you at all," are too
flat and positive for true delicacy and refinement in conversation. "I
have been inclined to think otherwise," "I should be pleased to hear
your reasons," "Aren't you mistaken?" are more acceptable phrases with
which to introduce dissent. In French society a discrepancy of views is
always manifested by some courtesy-phrase, such as "Mais, ne
pensez-vous pas" or "Je vous demande pardon"--the urbane substitutes
for "No, you are wrong," "No, it isn't." Our own Benjamin Franklin,
whose appreciation of the conversational art in France won completely
the hearts of the French people, tells us in his autobiography that in
later life he found it necessary to throw off habits acquired in youth:
"I continued this positive method for some years, but gradually left
it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest
diffidence: never using when I advanced anything that might possibly be
disputed, the words 'certainly,' 'undoubtedly,' or any others that give
the air of positiveness to an opinion, but rather say, 'it appears to
me,' or 'I should think it so-and-so, for such-and-such a reason,' or 'I
imagine it to be so,' or it is so 'if I am not mistaken.'"

Unyielding obstinacy in discussion is deadening to conversation, and yet
the extreme contrary is crippling. Open resentment of any attempt at
warmth of speech is paralysis and torpor to talk. When one meets a
hostess, or a conversational partner, "whose only pleasure is to be
displeased," one is reminded of the railway superintendent who kept the
wires hot with fault-finding messages bearing his initials "H. F. C."
until he came to be known along the road as "Hell For Certain." People
of a resentful turn of mind, whose every sentence is a wager, and who
convert every word into a missile, are fit for polemical squabbles, but
not for polite discussion. Those raucous persons who, when their
opponents attempt to speak, cry out against it as a monstrous
unfairness, are very well adapted to association with Kilkenny cats, but
not with human beings. It is in order to vanquish by this means one who
might otherwise outmatch them entirely that they thus seek to reduce
their opponent to a mere interjection. "A man of culture," says Mr.
Robert Waters, "is not intolerant of opposition. He frankly states his
views on any given subject, without hesitating to say wherein he is
ignorant or doubtful, and he is ready for correction and enlightenment
wherever he finds it." Such a man never presses his hearers to accept
his views; he not only tolerates but considers opposed opinions and
listens attentively and respectfully to them. Hazlitt said of the
charming discussion of Northcote, the painter: "He lends an ear to an
observation as if you had brought him a piece of news, and enters into
it with as much avidity and earnestness as if it interested only himself

Of all the tenets of good conversation to which the French give heed,
their devotion to listening is the most notable. From this judiciously
receptive attitude springs their uninterrupting shrug of assent or
disapproval. But listening is only one of their many established
conversational dicta: "The conversation of Parisians is neither
dissertation nor epigram; they have pleasantry without buffoonery; they
associate with skill, with genius, and with reason, maxims and flashes
of wit, sharp satire, and severe ethics. They run through all subjects
that each may have something to say; they exhaust no subject for fear of
tiring their hearer; they propose their themes casually and they treat
them rapidly; each succeeding subject grows naturally out of the
preceding one; each talker delivers his opinion and supports it briefly;
no one attacks with undue heat the supposition of another, nor defends
obstinately his own; they examine in order to enlighten, and stop before
the discussion becomes a dispute." Such was Rousseau's description of
Parisian conversation; and some one else has declared that the French
are the only nation in the world who understand a salon whether in
upholstery or talk. "Every Britisher," said Novalis more than a hundred
years ago, "is an island"; and Heine once defined silence as "a
conversation with Englishmen." We Americans, tho not so reserved in
talk as our English brothers, are less respectful to conversational
amenities; and both of us are far behind the French in the gracious art
of verbal expression. Not only is the spoken English of the cultured
Irish the most cosmopolitan and best modulated of any English in the
world, but the conversation of cultivated Irishmen more adequately
approaches the perfection of the French.

It is as illuminating to study the best models in human intercourse as
to study the best models in literature, or painting, or any other art.
One of the distinct elements in French conversation is that it is
invariably kept general; and by general I mean including in the talk all
the conversational group as opposed to tete-a-tete dialog. Many people
disagree with the French in this. Addison declared that there is no such
thing as conversation except between two persons; and Ralph Waldo
Emerson and Walter Savage Landor said something of the same sort.
Shelley was distinctly a tete-a-tete talker, as Mr. Benson, the
present-day essayist, in some of his intimate discourses, proclaims
himself to be. But Burke and Browning, the best conversationalists in
the history of the Anglo-Saxon race, like all the famous women of the
French salon, from Mme. Roland to Mme. de Stael, kept pace with any
number of interlocutors on any number of subjects, from the most
abstruse science to the lightest jeu d'esprit. Good talk between two
is no doubt a duet of exquisite sympathy; but true conversation is more
like a fugue in four or eight parts than like a duet. Furthermore,
general and tete-a-tete conversation have both their place and
occasion. At a dinner-table in France private chats are very quickly
dispelled by some thoughtful moderator. Dinner guests who devote
themselves to each other alone are not tolerated by the French hostess
as by the English and American. Because tete-a-tete conversation is
considered good form so generally among English-speaking peoples, I have
in other essays adapted my comments on this subject to our customs; but
talk which is distributed among several who conform to the courtesies
and laws of good conversation is the best kind of talk. In general talk
every one ought to have a voice. It is the undue humility of some and
the arrogance and polemical tendency of others that prevent good general
conversation. People have only to begin with three axioms: the first,
that everybody is entitled, and often bound, to form his own opinion;
second, that everybody is equally entitled to express that opinion; and
third, that everybody's opinion is entitled to a hearing and to
consideration, not only on the ground of courtesy, but because any
opinion honestly and independently formed is worth something and
contributes to the discussion.

Another principle of French conversation is that it is kept personal, in
the sense, I mean, that the personality of the speakers suffuses it.
"The theme being taken," as Stevenson says, "each talker plays on
himself as on an instrument, affirming and justifying himself." This
counter-assertion of personality, to all appearances, is combat, but at
bottom is amicable. An issue which is essentially general and impersonal
is lost in the accidental conflicts of personalities, because the
quality which plays the most important part is presence of mind, not
correct reasoning. A conversationalist whose argument is wholly
fallacious will often, by exercise of verbal adroitness, dispose of an
objection which is really fatal. The full swing of the personalities of
the speakers in a conversation is what makes the flint strike fire. It
is only from heated minds that the true essence of conversation springs;
and it is in talk which glances from one to another of a group, more
than in dialog, that this personality is reflected. "It is curious to
note," says an editorial in The Spectator, "how very much dialog there
is in the world, and how little true conversation; how very little, that
is, of the genuine attempt to compare the different bearing of the same
subject on the minds of different people. It is the rarest thing in the
world to come, even in the best authors, on a successful picture of the
different views taken by different minds on the same subject, and the
grounds of the difference."

Quite as noticeable an element in French conversation is the attitude of
the conversers to their subject. They never try to settle matters as if
their decisions were the last court of appeal, and as if they must make
frantic effort to carry their side of the question to victory. They
discuss for the pleasure of discussing; not for the pleasure of
vanquishing, nor even of convincing. They discuss, merely; they do not
debate, nor do they enter into controversy.

One of the greatest conversational charms of the French is their amenity
in leading talk. This grows out of a universal eagerness in France to
take pains in conversation and to learn its unwritten behests. The
uninitiated suspect little of the insight and care which matures even
the natural conversational ability of a Madame de Stael or a Francisque
Sarcey. The initiated know that the same principles which make the
French prodigious conversationalists make them capable and charming
hosts and hostesses. The talker who can follow in conversation knows
how to lead, and vice versa. Without a leader or "moderator," as the
admirable Scotch word has it, conversation is apt to become either tepid
or demoralized; and often, for the want of proper and sophisticated
leading, discussion that would otherwise be brilliant deteriorates into
pandemonium. As paradoxical as it sounds on first thought, it is
nevertheless true that thoroughly good conversation is impossible where
there is too much talk. Some sort of order must be imperceptibly if not
unconsciously maintained, or the sentences clash in general
conversation. Leading conversation is the adroit speech which checks the
refractory conversationalist and changes imperceptibly the subject when
it is sufficiently threshed or grows over-heated; it is guiding the talk
without palpable break into fresh fields of thought; it is the tact
with which, unperceived, the too slow narration of a guest is hurried by
such courteous interpolations as "So you got to the inn, and what then?"
or, "Did the marriage take place after all?"; it is the art with which
the skilful host or hostess sees that all are drawn into the
conversational group; it is the watchfulness that sends the shuttle of
talk in all directions instead of allowing it to rebound between a few;
it is the interest with which a host or hostess solicits the opinions of
guests, and develops whatever their answers may vaguely suggest; it is
the care with which an accidentally interrupted speech of a guest is
resuscitated; it is the consideration which puts one who arrives late in
touch with the subject which was being discust just before his
appearance. It is this concern for conversational cues which gives any
host or hostess an almost unbounded power in social intercourse; for he
is the best talker who can lead others to talk well.

It goes without saying that a people who have assimilated all the
foregoing tenets of good conversation are never disjointed in their
talk. Their consummate art of listening is responsible for their skill
in following the logical trend of the discourse. This may be considered
a national trait. In decent French society there are no abrupt
transitions of thought in the different speeches. The speech of each
speaker grows naturally out of what some one of his conversational
partners has just been saying, or it is duly prefaced by an introductory
sentence connecting it with a certain preceding speech. They know that,
once embarked, no converser can tell where the give and take of talk
will carry him; but they also know that this does not necessitate
awkward and direct changes of subject. The weakness of inattention and
of unconscious shunting in conversation is virtually unknown in good
society in France.

Is it any wonder that in a country where conversation is considered an
art capable of cultivation and having certain fixt principles, so many
French women of humble birth, like Sophie Arnould and Julie Lespinasse,
have earned their way to fame by their conversational powers? Is it any
wonder that in France polite discussion is made the most exhilarating
and delightful exercise in the world?

One reason there is so little acceptable conversational discussion is
the indisposition of people in society to say what they think; their
unwillingness to express their whole minds on any one subject. It is
this element of unfettered expression or revelation which makes
literature entertaining; why then withhold thought too cautiously from
conversation? The habit of evasion is cowardly as well as unsocial; and
nothing so augments conversation as being pleasantly downright; letting
people know where to find you. The most preposterous views get respect
if uttered intrepidly. Sincere speech is necessary to good conversation
of any kind, and especially is it essential to discussion. One of the
stupidest of conversational sins is quibbling--talking insincerely, just
for the sake of using words, and shifting the point at issue to some
incidental, subordinate argument on which the decision does not at all
depend. It is the intellectually honest person who sparkles in

Another reason why discussion is waning is the disrespect we feel for
great subjects. We only mention them, or hint at them; and this cannot
lead to very brilliant talk. Tho prattle and persiflage have their place
in conversation, talkers of the highest order tire of continually
encouraging chit-chat. "What a piece of business; monstrous! I have not
read it; impossible to get a box at the opera for another fortnight; how
do you like my dress? It was immensely admired yesterday at the B----s;
how badly your cravat is tied! Did you know that ---- lost heavily by
the crash of Thursday? That dear man's death gave me a good fit of
crying; do you travel this summer? Is Blank really a man of genius? It
is incomprehensible; they married only two years ago." This sort of
nimble talk is all very well; but because one likes sillibub
occasionally is no proof that one is willing to discard meat entirely.
Conversational topics can be too trivial for recreation as well as too
serious; and even important subjects can be handled in a light way if
necessary. "Clever people are the best encyclopedias," said Goethe; and
the great premier Gladstone was a charming man in society, though he
never talked on any but serious subjects. He was noted for his ability
to pump people dry without seeming in the least to probe. "True
conversation is not content with thrust and parry, with mere sword-play
of any kind, but should lay mind to mind and show the real lines of
agreement and the real lines of divergence. Yet this is the very kind of
conversation which seems to me so very rare." In order that a great
subject shall be a good topic of conversation, it must provoke an
enthusiasm of belief or disbelief; people must have decided opinions one
way or the other. I believe with Stevenson that theology, of all
subjects, is a suitable topic for conversational discussion, and for the
reason he gives: that religion is the medium through which all the world
considers life, and the dialect in which people express their
judgments. Try to talk for any length of time with people to whom you
must not mention creeds, morals, politics, or any other vital interest
in life, and see how inane and fettered talk becomes.

The tranquil and yet spirited discussion of great subjects is the most
stimulating of all talk. The thing to be desired is not the avoidance of
discussion but the encouragement of it according to its unwritten codes
and precepts. "The first condition of any conversation at all," says
Professor Mahaffy of Dublin, "is that people should have their minds so
far in sympathy that they are willing to talk upon the same subject, and
to hear what each member of the company thinks about it. The higher
condition which now comes before us is, that the speaker, apart from the
matter of the conversation, feels an interest in his hearers as distinct
persons, whose opinions and feelings he desires to know.... Sympathy,
however, should not be excessive in quality, which makes it
demonstrative. We have an excellent word which describes the
over-sympathetic person, and marks the judgment of society, when we say
that he or she is gushing. To be too sympathetic makes discussion,
which implies difference of opinion, impossible." Those who try to
discover how far conversation is advanced by sympathy and hindered by
over-sympathy; those who attempt to detect to what extent wholesome
discussion is degraded by acrid controversy, need not be afraid of
vigorous intellectual buffeting. Discussion springs from human nature
when it is under the influence of strong feeling, and is as much an
ingredient of conversation as the vocalizing of sounds is a part of the
effort of expressing thought.

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