Heinen: We need to talk

Editorial director Neil Heinen mourns the loss of interpersonal interaction.

I had a conversation recently not dissimilar to hundreds of conversations I’ve had over my 40-year career as a journalist. They are part of a writer’s stock in trade, an essential component of the information we gather and share and the stories we tell. This one was with M. Adams, the co-director of the Madison nonprofit Freedom Inc. Adams and Freedom Inc. both have public images determined by relatively narrow perceptions of who they are and what they do. 

While I’ve interviewed Adams before on the televised version of For The Record, I was interested in better understanding Adams’ thinking and motivation for leading actions demanding social justice and police reform. We talked about the incredibly important threads of domestic and sexual violence, child and elder abuse, gender discrimination and cultural bias interwoven with the racism and acts of police violence against Black men fueling the movement. We also talked about long-distance relationships and the challenges of reconciling two very different opinions about the perfect breed of a new puppy.

One of the many difficult and vexing ramifications of living in a pandemic is the forced separation from one another. But the truth is we’ve been moving further apart for awhile now. Blame technology, time pressures, societal norms and more, but we’ve lost an appreciation for the connections, understanding and awareness that come from interpersonal interaction. Much of what I’ve learned over the years about Madison — about the issues that challenge us and the shared experiences that bring us together — and has enabled me to do my work has come from one-on-one conversations where both participants asked questions, took chances, spent some personal energy and listened to each other. 

The late journalist William Greider saw the beginnings of democracy in human conversation, when people talk to other people about important questions “as though the answers matter to them.” I do too. But I also see the promise of civility, compassion and even greater happiness. 

Acting on one’s beliefs and values is important. But I question efforts to recall Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway without first talking to her. That doesn’t strike me as the best use of one’s civic energy. I can be outraged at every despicable act of police violence against a Black person. But my view of policing is influenced by the scores of officers I have known, talked to, watched do their jobs and listened to as they spoke from their hearts. It is infinitely more difficult to dislike a politician or other public servant after they’ve told you of visiting their brother in the hospital, missing their daughter’s championship soccer game or being moved by a song. 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve warily entered a meeting with someone with whom I had disagreed only to walk out with the humbling realization that I had been wrong about them.

Reporting “the news” is hard. All of us engaged in that work are limited in how much information we can convey in just so many words or so many seconds, with only so much audio or number of images. I’ve left many meetings frustrated that viewers and readers would not get a deeper and truer understanding of an issue simply because I could not capture the nuance, the emotion or full context.

We can’t all “be there” to experience things first hand. But we can withhold judgment. We can rein in our initial instincts, give ourselves time to accommodate additional information and appreciate broader perspectives. We can try to get to know someone, and in the process, get to know ourselves a little better.

Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine and WISC-TV.