Legend has it that when Irish clans went to war with one another in the very distant past the poets were to be spared. The premise was based on the belief that it should be the poets that chronicle what happened after the fighting was over. Yes, a little bit of civility and honor in the rough and tumble Hibernian world. The ancient Greeks as well had a deep admiration for an individual that was sound in not only in body but also mind- encouraging debate and public speaking. In fact, debate and public speaking were two of the ways an individual brought glory and honor to their respective city-state, such was the case for Pericles and Demosthenes in relation to Athens. And then in 17th-18th century France the salon emerged as a legitimate venue where citizens vigorously discussed the issues of the day. These participants began to apply the natural law principles seen in nature to government which helped form the basis for this period- Age of Enlightenment.
Today, America is need for this appreciation, for the admiration of those that have the gift of passionate oration and for this unique style setting. It is this last component of setting where I believe communities can make real inroads for the better in a short period of time.
The current mainstream setting if not broken (which I would argue it is), is at the very least severely compromised. Cable outlets like CNN, MSNBC and Fox News have failed at offering real, meaningful dialogue on our societal challenges and triumphs. They instead are interested in scoring points with their viewership and struggle at objectivity. Facebook and Twitter are wonderful tools at bringing humanity together however they have failed consistently in being platforms for honest interchange on contemporary issues.
With this in mind I think it would be spectacular if restaurants, bars and taverns carved out time each week or month for people to gather and discuss matters of the day. They are the perfect settings for such an experiment. It is true that people already discuss issues in these social settings at their respective tables, bar stools and hi-tops but it is very private by design, not coordinated with other patrons. What if that changed once a week or a couple of times a month for these public places? People reserve private rooms all the time for one sort of party or another- this would be no different. Beyond room reservation and perhaps agenda items of topic(s) discussed the environment would be open to anyone. To come in and listen, to come in and speak. In many ways, like the French salons themselves they would develop their own environments organically, meaning some of these gatherings would be formal and some would be more wheeling and dealing as they say. Each gathering place would attract its own clientele. And that to me is awesome and necessary.
Although each would be unique in their own way I would like to think that they would share some level of standardization; meaning they all upheld and followed certain guidelines and principles. First, the mere gatherings themselves celebrate face to face interaction. That in it of itself is important. A group of strangers coming together for discussion that share not only similar views but more importantly may have opposing views. Imagine that! A premise that is sorely missing today. We need to become more comfortable sharing our thoughts with one another especially when in disagreement. Most people walk on egg shells when it comes to discussions on contemporary issues with people they don’t know. Its human nature I guess or at least customary and many people avoid it at all costs. But avoidance can create environments where no one wants to say what everyone in the room is thinking. And that can be problematic. Instead, why not have gatherings where people are recognized and encouraged to say what they are thinking? Unfortunately, it seems today people are more inclined to say outrageous or unsubstantiated statements online when they know they will never see the person they are engaged with on the other end of the computer screen. Yeah shocker alert, right? This is all totally unproductive. And this brings me to my second point. These gatherings in order to work must embrace arguments made by people based in reason, logic and sense. No exception. Finally, a cardinal rule guiding such meetings must be unwavering in participants challenging ideas and not individuals themselves.
Now many people maintain that they go out to bars, restaurants and taverns to forget about life for a few short hours and therefore would not want to be part of the scene described up above. Which is fair. But I don’t believe people are engaging enough in this type of discourse all the time in their own lives. . In fact I would say most people that go home each night after work are forgetting about life all the time. That’s the point. Otherwise none of this French salon speak would be necessary on my part.
We hear all the time of our civic duty to vote. Get out and vote. Make your voice be heard. And I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment but I would also agree that a citizen’s duty needs to be more than that- much more in fact. In this context, on one level voting is like the bare minimum. People need to be informed and educated. These settings offer a wonderful way for people to qualify their beliefs by having conversations and discussions with their fellow community members. Let’s test our ideas TOGETHER.
Collective trepidation and anxiety might exist due to the current climate of hyper-political polarization. Yet I would argue that one of the reasons for this polarization is because we as a society do a poor job at listening to one another and communicating with our fellow citizens. In many ways we sort of don’t practice enough. News outlets and issues are dominated by those on the extremes which I don’t think fits the mold of most Americans. As a result those in the middle tune it all out. . These gatherings might lessen polarization if given the chance because it has the ability to change the paradigm. I think it is well worth the risk.
It goes without being said that contemporary issues also do not always need to be combative. Perhaps these settings can also provide general discussions on innumerable historical topics, or philosophy, or Shakespeare, or Great Books, or the concept of eternity, or how to make sense of the human experience. I think there exists a great yearning, thirst and need for all of this in America. So Let’s go!!!