Don’t interrupt me while I’m interrupting you.
My friend Roberto is puzzled.
Roberto was raised in Spain and now lives here in the States. As an English learner, he struggles to understand the nuances of his new language. He has an outsider’s perspective. So by talking to him I can see how many American customs — ones that I take for granted — are puzzling to an outsider.
One of the things about Americans that puzzles Roberto the most is our propensity for talking “over” one another. It is as if we demand, “Don’t interrupt me while I’m interrupting you.”
We regularly begin speaking before the other person is finished. Sometimes we bulldoze right over the other person, preventing him from speaking at all.
“In your country, is that considered rude?” Roberto asks me.
There was a more genteel time in the US when it would be considered rude. Nowadays many people believe that anyone who does not practice conversation interruptus is weak and indecisive.
How did we get this way?
Part of the explanation is that people today are mimicking talking heads on television and in social media. Until recent decades our intellectual role models were journalists like Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and the experts of Meet the Press. They all practiced an “I-Talk-You-Talk” style of discourse.
That changed some decades ago when the major entertainment corporations bought the news media. Suddenly, polite discourse gave way to verbal combatants who screamed and interrupted their way across every conversation. The key here was — and continues to be — ratings. Ratings translate into revenue. And in order to enhance ratings and revenue, news hosts and other presenters deliberately put on a show that arouses viewer passions, with interlocutors interrupting and shouting each other down.
Young viewers have never heard the earlier “I-Talk-You-Talk” style. They don’t know it ever existed. To them, shouting and conversation interruptus is normal. Now this style has worked its way into the larger society.
The Death of Free Speech in the Academy
The college campus has been another locus for the demise of the “I-Talk-You-Talk” style. Ostensibly a place that protects the free exchange of ideas, colleges have in fact pioneered some of the greatest restrictions on free speech. College professors and administrators enforce a set of ideas that used to belong to the far left but are now part of the mainstream.
These far left ideas hold that certain groups — people of color, ethnic and sexual minorities, transgender people, and the foreign-born — are historically oppressed and institutionally discriminated against, even by the very colleges that bend over backwards to favor them. Any idea that contradicts the narrative of oppression against these groups is labeled as hate speech. And hate speech is prohibited.
This deformed idea of free speech has provided license to offended minorities — and their left-wing enablers — to do what they see the talking heads do on TV: shout and interrupt.
Free speech, the left-wing enforcers say, does not mean hate speech. Thus, anyone who challenges the minority oppression narrative is hateful and racist and deserves to be shut down. In this view, shouting and talking over the offender is justified. If that doesn’t work, banning such individuals from campus is a remedy. But it seems there are always a few folks on campus who fail to follow the party line and in these cases shouting and talking over the other person is accepted, and even encouraged.
Free Speech Suppression
As Heather MacDonald points out in her chilling expose of political correctness on college campuses — The Diversity Delusion — there is an entrenched university bureaucracy to enforce the quashing of any speech that departs from the oppression narrative.
Such language has become verboten on college campuses. Silencing those who engage in this language — by shouting and talking over the speakers — is now acceptable.
Students and administrators demand safe spaces where select minorities — those in favor with the left — will be free from exposure to ideas that contradict the prevailing narrative.
A corollary to the safe spaces phenomenon is the prohibition against micro aggressions on campus. Micro aggressions are subtle statements that might offend a person from a favored oppressed group.
One university went so far as to publish a set of guidelines for avoiding micro aggressions. An example of a micro aggression was a Jewish student who told a black student, “I know something about oppression because my grandparents are Holocaust survivors.” This is apparently an aggression against the victim status of a black student. It illustrates that in the far-left world view, black oppression is a valued asset. Jewish oppression is not. In this view, Jews are privileged and thus cannot be oppressed and are not deserving of victim status. Thus, students may believe that talking over or shouting down the Jewish student is laudable.
Facts themselves can be micro aggressions. For example, consider a student who pointed out that most black perpetrators are shot by black, not white, police officers. Or that a massive federal investigation led by a black attorney general acting under a black president found that the police shooting of Michael Brown was justified. (The investigation concluded that Brown attacked the police officer and attempted to grab his gun.) Stating these facts would likely constitute a micro aggression on today’s college campus. So why not shout down or talk over any offender who would dare to state these facts?
Media talking heads and commentators have ushered in the current era of polarization. Americans have always espoused opposing views. These views reflected the differing perspectives of various religious, ethnic, regional and socio-economic groups. The difference today is that the rhetoric of those with opposing views has heated up. It is characterized by increasing intolerance for others’ views. We have descended into a form of tribalism.
As views become more extreme and rigid, we become more, not less, confident of our own ideas. Perhaps shutting others down when they oppose our ideas is a form of assuaging our own insecurities about the validity of our ideas.
After all, people who are confident in their ideas have no need to shut others down.
The Downsides of Self-Esteem
Many on the left have espoused the idea of increasing the self-esteem of those they sympathize with. They have convinced politicians, community advocates, and educators to advocate self-esteem instruction for lagging groups in society. These self-esteem promoters may have misdiagnosed the problem. One study, for example, found that imprisoned men scored higher than non-criminals on a measure of self-esteem.
The flip-side of self-esteem advocacy is excessive self-esteem. Has excessive self-esteem fueled the belief by many that it is OK to speak over others or shout them down?
My Truth Is the Truth
One bad idea introduced by the left has been the notion of personal truth. The idea is that there is no measureable, objective truth. Rather, each individual has his own legitimate truth.
Thus, talk-show host Oprah Winfrey encourages women who believe they have been sexually assaulted, to speak “their truth”—-as if the facts of each putative sexual assault are irrelevant. The absurd “Believe Her” movement arose in the wake of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination hearings. But should we believe her even in the absence of evidence of an assault? Should we believe her even if she is lying? Should we believe him too?
Unfortunately, personal truth is impervious to challenge. Are purveyors of personal truth so confident in their characterizations that anyone who challenges them deserves to be talked over and shouted down? The thinking seems to be, “Because my truth is my personal possession and not subject to challenge, how dare anyone challenge me?” In this view, such a challenger deserves to be silenced.
The Pace of Time
A final dynamic in the demise of the “I-Talk-You-Talk” ethic is the changing nature of perceived time. This is a rural-urban divide. Traditional country people speak in slow, measured fashion; they mull over their ideas; they think and move with the slow pace of the day. In the city, by contrast, we are all on the clock, time is money, and the pace of life is rapid. This is reflected in our way of talking with others. When conversing, we are impatient to “get our two cents in” as if by talking over one another, we’ll say twice as much. Instead, we say and hear only half as much. Or not at all.
What do I Tell Roberto?
I wish I had an easy answer to Roberto’s question about whether Americans believe that speaking over another person is rude. Our norms are changing rapidly.
One thing is certain. We have become accustomed to interrupting one another. And that is not a formula for a well-functioning society.