I sat for a couple of hours this evening at a panel discussion sponsored by The Conscious Living Institute of Central Oklahoma (a kinda cumbersome name that immediately raises the question in my mind about whether there be such institutes in eastern and western Oklahoma; seriously doubt it, so why "central Oklahoma?<<==you see how my mind jumps everywhere?). It sounded interesting when I read the email announcement. The subject was "Why Are We So Mean?" The panelists were three PhDs--philosophy types--and an engaging Baptist minister--who hastened to assure us he is one of the "ecumenical kind" and went on mention "a two-glass of wine" question; so this guy was OK from the git-go.
Anyway, this discussion, I thought, had a lot of potential. Unfortunately, it quickly got bogged down in what I regarded as talk about the symptoms and not the problem. Instead of sticking to a focus on the question, the short presentations and the audience-panel exchange that followed circled around all the manifestations of rudeness, lack of respect, and meanness we constantly encounter in daily life. The question supposedly being addressed got lost in a lot of kinda pertinent palaver. Audience comments in some cases were either inane, unduly verbose, or ridiculous (one person, who taught yoga, felt it necessary to speak about four times, and on one of those times dilated about proper diet, and how our bad eating habits might be ultimately to blame). You get the idea. After about an hour of a two-hour program, it was obvious that we were going to stay in these superfluous veins. The moderator of the program was virtually silent throughout, so nothing kept the discussion from getting out of hand.
At one point I tried to get the focus back on the question, suggesting that perhaps we should look at our character as a people and our history as avenues of explanation, i.e., we are both a violent and an ill-educated people. This went over like the proverbial screen door in a submarine. But it wasn't really all that different from the other promising lines of inquiry that surfaced occasionally. The "flattening of language" brought about by the technological advances in communication, for example. Times of profound transformation according to this thesis produce disintegration of language. Hmmmm. Interesting. But this subject stuck up its head only a couple of times after it was raised.
Bottom line: you put three academics on a panel and give them no script, you are asking for a lot of posturing and pontificating. They immediately deviated off the path in favor of listening to the sound of their own voices. The most interesting person on the panel was the non-academic, and he spoke the least. A shame. This discussion might have been fruitful.