Polite Dinner Conversation

Tonight at dinner, I overheard two couples talking about Important Social Issues. I’m a writer, so eavesdropping isn’t really considered rude. It is actually a kind of professional obligation. The couples were talking about gay marriage and transgender identity. What struck me wasn’t the content of the couples’ conversation. I was amazed, rather, by the tone — friendly, civil and challenging. The privileged white upper-class man was being rude and sarcastic. The privileged white upper-class woman answered his sarcastic jibes with earnest, polite, unapologetic replies. She answered every joke with a “Imagine how you would feel if…”

The conversation had a pleasant, enjoyable rhythm. They were rising and falling against one another’s reply. There was thoughtful, quiet spaces in-between each retort. There was civility. There was respect. There was friendship.

The conversation captured me not for its academic merits or it rhetorical riposte.  The conversation caught my attention because it felt so unusual. Somewhere along the way, disagreements have become forbidden. When friends disagree with one another, we keep it to ourselves. We learn to avoid the discomfort of discord. We pretend that silence is agreement, that tranquility is concert. And yet we once were a country built on public debate, a great laboratory for ideas, where a kind of intellectual survival of the fittest sussed out the best, most powerful ideas through argument and disagreement.

I don’t want to make too much of it. Maybe it is just me. But I find myself increasingly talking to people who agree with me, nodding my head to acknowledge things I myself might have said.

And then I see how other’s practice constructive disagreement in such a polite, friendly and constructive way. And I see how important this dinner time conversation might become.

In a few weeks, the United State Supreme Court will announce decisions on some majorly Important Social Issues. The decisions will help establish or reinforce legal and political precedent for how we want to live. The decisions will impact social norms and will help govern the ways we organize ourselves inside our communities. And yet, for all the importance of the Supreme Court decisions, I can’t help thinking that it won’t be enough. The future won’t be made by legal pronouncement or proclamation anymore than it will be made by news commentary or podcast. The future will be shaped over a thousand pleasant meals with friends gathered together disagreeing through polite dinner conversation.

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