Do you want things to change? Are you agitated or frustrated or just plain bored with the civic conversation in your community and the country at large?
I am. And I’m going to do something about it. I’m going to take a blockhead to lunch.
We keep hearing that civic life these days is deeply polarized, and it is. Why is that? Because we fundamentally disagree on the basic issues, or because we’ve let shouting, blaming and scapegoating become the way we do politics? Is it because our beliefs clash at the very core, or because the frenzy and fear purveyed by our crassest media and worst politicians have made us desperate for a set of beliefs and like-minded people to cling to, however incomplete or flawed they may be?
Probably some of both, and maybe more. But since most of the current ideological and philosophical debate (if what we’ve been doing deserves a word that polite) is a proven dead end, perhaps it’s time we started looking harder for little cracks in the wall where a ray of light might shine through. What if, instead of battling opinion with opinion and trying to beat back their dogma with our dogma, we spent some time probing beneath the dogma? What if we listened to the music instead of just the words?
I hereby declare May to be Take a Blockhead to Lunch Month. Participation is easy. As soon as you finish this column, take a moment to think of someone you know who cares about what’s happening in the world, and whose opinions differ sharply from yours. Those opinions can be about anything: President George Bush, the war in Iraq, immigration, evolution, abortion, educational testing, Hillary Clinton — pick your flash point.
Then call him or her to announce that it’s Take a Blockhead to Lunch Month and that he’s the lucky blockhead you’ve chosen; if you think there may be a more diplomatic way to phrase the invitation, have at it. Then go get lunch together, or breakfast, dinner, coffee, tea, a beer. After you’ve ordered and settled in, ask your dining partner plainly and respectfully what she thinks or feels about issues that seem to divide you.
There are just a couple of rules. One: You have to ask real questions, not simply spout off opinions with question marks stuck onto the end. We all know how that works. Despite what we learned in high school grammar classes, sentences beginning with "Oh, come on now, do you actually believe ..." don’t qualify as questions.
Two: Throughout the course of the conversation, aim to listen at least four times more than you talk. Use your talking time to ask more questions. Your goal is to better understand what your blockhead means, and exactly how her peculiar opinions were formed.
If what he says pushes your buttons, and if you’re busting to answer back — and if you’re a person inclined to do this exercise at all, you probably will be — stretch yourself to listen even more. (If you are any good at doing this, I’d personally appreciate some helpful tips.) If you’re just dying to express your own opinions, you might ask your blockhead if you can be his or her blockhead. Then it will be your turn to be taken to lunch, and you can reverse roles.
The worst that will happen is that you’ll find out you were right: Your lunch partner really is a complete blockhead who must be living on another planet.
Then again, you might be deeply surprised. You might catch a lasting insight that you can’t even imagine right now. And who knows what could that lead to? You might even be encouraged to try this again, and find a second blockhead to take to lunch. That should be easy. There are plenty of us out here. We’re all in a learning process. Please let us know how your conversation went at blockheadtolunch.com. Thanks.
Jeff Golden is a writer and host of the Jefferson Exchange on Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Oregon.