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Harris Blackwood: Barbershops offered public forums of gentle humor

My first job was shining shoes in a barbershop. I was paid a whopping 25 cents to put a shine on a pair of shoes. Despite my competitive price, I learned that not everyone who came in the shop wanted a shine. Some of them did not want a haircut, either. They just came in to discuss the topic of the day.

Harris Blackwood
Harris Blackwood

The topics could be anything from the headlights on the town fire truck to the president and Congress of the United States. The discussions could sometimes evolve into a gentlemanly debate, depending on your political leanings. It never got ugly, just a bit spirited.

I remember when a man came in one Saturday morning and announced to the group that Gov. Jimmy Carter was going to run for president.

Aub McClain, the older barber in the shop, who sometimes took a little nap during the discussions, sat up in the barber chair and asked, “President of what?”

There were men who were southern Democrats, some were Republicans others were somewhere in-between. Occasionally, they would engage in a little good-natured ribbing of someone with a dissenting opinion. But most of the time, the entire conversation was peppered with laughter.

Perhaps the greatest debate was when one of the men drove up in a car with a new set of radial tires. This was a time when bias ply tires were more common. The fellows left the shop to go look at his newfangled tires.

“I don’t believe those will catch on,” said one man. He was wrong, but it seemed like a good sentiment at the time.

I have heard people say they would like to live in a gated community where everyone was a Christian. I’m not sure that’s where I would like to be.

We live in a country where having a different political, religious or any other civic view is protected by the U.S. Constitution. If you look back at the original 13 colonies, many of them were established by folks of a particular religious persuasion.

Rhode Island was established by a group of Baptists. Massachusetts was the landing point for the Pilgrims, who were separatists seeking a break with the Church of England.

I enjoy a conversation with folks with differing views. I think it’s healthy and if you know what you’re talking about, it makes you a better Baptist, Methodist, Mormon or whatever.

What really saddens me is that we don’t engage in real conversation anymore. We tend to shoot written arrows at one another through the internet or on talk radio. We sound like a convention of the National Association of Angry People. Our conversations, if they exist, tend to be mean-spirited and often result in name-calling against each other.

I love this country and I think it is still the greatest land on the face of the Earth. I am glad I live in a place that I can express my opinion without fear that some government watchdog will come and rein me in.

A friend of mine often reminds me to “err on the side of grace.” You can defend your position without being mean or hurtful with your words. We need a big gulp from the cup of kindness. Unfortunately, that cup has been filled with some bitter medicine that no one wants to drink.

I wish that we could all sit down in the barber shop of public opinion and have a conversation where everyone expressed their opinion in a gentle way.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear Sundays.

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