The dishonesties of false personalization

We hear a lot of talk about how our country “needs to have a conversation about” this or that issue or condition. But this way of talking about “conversation” is unhelpful, and not only because it is so often a disingenuous way of nudging an orthodoxy into being. It is unhelpful because it perpetuates an egregious category error, precisely by missing the special character of conversation. Most of the communications to which we are subjected, particularly through our electronic media, are of precisely the opposite character. Overlooking and overhearing are their stock in trade, since they are required, by their very nature as the output of mass media, to be devoid of all delicacies of context. Advertising, journalism, popular culture, political campaigning and speechifying: For better or worse, these things serve a public purpose, and can foster public forms of memory and understanding we badly need. They are at their worst, though, when they try to be something they are not, and fall into the dishonesties of false personalization. The intimacy of free and full conversation, which some of us consider the crowning glory of a civilized society, is the last thing they are capable of fostering.

— Wilfred M. McClay, Overheard and Overlooked

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