I enjoyed reading Harris Blackwood’s column Sunday. He reminded me of the barbershop I frequented as a child, crowded with men of various backgrounds and opinions artfully conversing on a broad range of topics, including politics. Sadly, forums like these have disappeared. Monday marked the birthday of Oscar Wilde, a 19th century Irish author considered a “brilliant conversationalist” during a time when conversation was an art. Like Mr. Blackwood, I would like to see this art revived.
So how did we lose this ability to cordially engage with one another on divergent topics? Technology is partly to blame. Before air conditioning, people would sit on their front porches or under shade trees to cool off. They would have the opportunity to socialize with other people seeking reprieve from the heat or walking down the street.
In the early 1960s, I sat with my grandmother on her front porch in Tallahassee, Florida, where I got to witness this exact type of social interaction. Of course, it helped that cities had sidewalks and that people had reasons to use them. Shopping centers have not always been islands of commerce surrounded by seas of asphalt. At one time, it was common to walk to the store.
Now we drive in our air-conditioned steel-and-glass cages in a form of self-imposed exile from our neighbors whom we only know by the cars that they drive. If we do walk, our ears are plugged and our eyes averted. When we are at home, we watch TV or stare at the computer. When we have to communicate with others, we prefer to text because it is easier to control the conversation. Real face-to-face conversations are messy and chaotic. You never know where they might end up. You might even find the other person not so different from yourself.
I am a self-described Roosevelt liberal and used to regularly argue politics with a friend who identified as a Reagan conservative. A typical conversation might begin, “You conservatives think ...” or “You liberals think ...” only to be met with the reply, “That’s not what I think.”
When we actually discussed the issues, we discovered that the other did not adhere to some inflexible, stereotypical position but instead had a nuanced view on the subject. As our conversations progressed, we often learned that we agreed on more points than we disagreed. We agreed on core values. We agreed on the ends. We only disagreed on how to best achieve those ends.
Now I admit that these conversations happened before our country became so intolerably polarized in matters of politics. But perhaps the time has finally come when we can stop, catch our breaths, walk outside for some fresh air, find a common shady spot to help insulate us from the heat of politics and talk to one another. There’s a lot of shade around the square. When can we meet?
Brian E. Moss