Talking matters

Earlier this week, thanks to @mfarnsworth, Twitter and Crikey, I saw ‘The Special Relationship’. It is a dramatised movie (not a documentary) looking at Tony Blair and Bill Clinton’s relationship. The movie starts with Clinton speaking enthusiastically about the potential for progressive politics to change the world for the better, ends with Blair appearing keen to make history rather than to do the right thing, and effectively blames Blair for the Bush doctrine. The acting had me trying to smother my laughter throughout, but it is an engaging film. Many of the scenes are phone calls between Blair and Clinton and the sequence of events seems to suggest that speaking with somebody is more likely to make you want to help them out.

Clearly the significance of dialogue is taken for granted in international politics. Leaders are often called to enter into ‘talks’. Carl Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction provides one clue why this may be the case. The enemy who is the Other is one who you have nothing to say to. Once they are the Other you no longer need to recognise their humanity and can do all sorts of evil things.

What this has to do with what happens in suburban everyday life is probably a little less interesting to write about, but rather fundamental to my project. Who do we choose to talk to and who do we avoid? Who do we feel obliged to be considerate of or helpful to? One concrete example of the significance of talking is the difference between the reactions received by people who just ask for money compared to people who first try to start a conversation.

Being part of conversation is not only about negotiating a relationship. Conversation has content. Various ‘facts’ can be ‘common knowledge’ within a group, but people may act to stop the information from leaving the group. The clearest example seems to be the relationship between the media and politicians (see for example the commentary on Laurie Oakes disclosure on the release of Cheryl Kernot’s book back in 2002). Just how much information we do not have access to is pretty clear. My favourite rant on this topic is the secrecy that surrounds reviewing the DSM, which is the manual of mental illness.

Sometimes, when it suits somebody’s agenda, we get glimpses of the information we do not have access to. Leaks have certainly been a headline of the week, both internationally with Wikileaks and the Australian Labor Party’s election campaign.

I suppose that social research can be a matter of trying to access who is talking about what. Of course, in ethnographic research this usually means becoming part of the conversation yourself. I do not think it is too much of a problem that to be part of the conversation you have to make sure you are not an Other. After all, if you are not willing to understand a group on their terms why are you including them in your research?

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