Good Citizens Discuss

This is a paper I recently submitted for my philosophy class.

It is Wednesday afternoon and I am sitting in a coffee shop downtown. The winter sun streams cheerily in the window to my right, but that has not captured my attention. It is the hubbub of noise to my left that makes my mind wander as I try to grab snippets of conversation. The coffee shop is crowded today and noisy, normally I would regret not bringing my earbuds, but today I find myself enjoying the noise. There are only four of us on an electronic device, and ironically all four of us are using a laptop. No one is on their phone, instead the other patrons are engaged in conversation. There is a large group of older women crowded around a small round table towards the counter. There are two other ladies, who seem to know everyone who walks in the door, enjoying each other’s conversation at a long table. They are sitting side-by-side instead of across the table from each other. Two women on my side of the room are engaged in earnest conversation, leaning towards each other and away in a kind of conversational dance. Across the room from where I sit a mom is enjoying an afternoon snack and coffee with her young daughter. There is one man among all the women and is quietly reading or studying. Laughter rings out every few moments and the large group of women just added another to their herd. This is, quite possibly, the western Nebraska version of Cheers. You know, the place “where everybody knows your name.”

Obviously, I do not know everything that is being discussed at each table, but here is what is striking, at almost every table those gathered are engaged in lively conversation. This is an example of what I believe makes a good citizen. Our discussions bring us together in our shared humanness and our love for conversation. And a good cup of coffee.  It is difficult to tell from my vantage point in the alcove window by the door the topics of conversation and the level of disagreement in those discussions. But judging by the laughter there is not much disagreement. But our disagreements, when discussed in a civil manner, are a mark of a good citizen.

Laughter erupts again from the large table of women. Their laughter reminds me of a conversation I overheard at our small group the other night. One friend was telling another of some of the struggles her marriage had weathered. She commented, “I was told ‘why not just let some of those things roll off your back? Why not choose joy instead of anger? Those are both simply emotions. You can choose one as well as the other.’ And I thought to myself, ‘why not just laugh?” so I started laughing. That has helped our ‘discussions’ immensely. Just laughing in the heat of the moment. I laugh. He laughs and we forget we were arguing.” Even I know they do not really forget they were arguing really, but in a sense, a light heart takes the sting out of intense, often loud, and nearly always hurtful arguments. Good citizens remember to laugh together with those they disagree with.

I just spent a few moments looking around the room and allowing my thoughts to wander. I contemplated how the atmosphere of the room would change if an angry argument suddenly broke out at one of the tables. All laughter and cheerful banter would stop, and an uncanny hush would fall over the room. Maybe it would be a political disagreement. Another Bernie supporter attacking a Trump supporter and vice versa. Or maybe a member of the pro-vaccination camp lashes out at the anti-vaccination camp. Or maybe, just maybe a pro-choice person attacks a pro-life person and their argument.

So often when we argue, we forget the one we are arguing with is a real human with real feelings. All we can think of is how we are right, and they are wrong. We refuse to listen to their reasons, because we are sure we’ve heard them all before. Our arguments are valid, theirs are not. The simple fact that “they” disagree with us means they hate us and therefore are not to be trusted. Yet, to have a good discussion, even of potentially volatile subjects, we need to have trust in our fellow citizens. We must trust them and allow them to trust us. It is what makes us good citizens and arguers. Trust often equates with care. We will not, dare I say we cannot, trust those who do not care for us? We cannot truly care for those we do not trust. It is our care for others that leads us into discussions of hard topics with them. It is care for them that prompts us to bring up difficult subjects and seek to understand their viewpoint. Can we truly trust someone if we do not know where they are coming from?

Can we say we care for our fellow citizens if we refuse to engage with them? If we know someone is believing a lie, headed down a dangerous path, do we care for them if we do not mention the pitfalls of their beliefs? Are we good citizens if we simply allow them to flounder in wrong beliefs? Or do we hold so tightly to our need to be right at any cost that we refuse to trust anyone enough to allow them to address our beliefs?

Are our beliefs really our beliefs if we never discuss them openly with others? In taking this class, it has been made so abundantly clear to me how much fear keeps us from sharing at a heart level with our friends and fellow citizens. When we do this, we are not acting as the good citizens we want to be believe we are. We are acting like the opposite of a good citizen.  I have learned that what I need most is simply to get out of my head and engage with those I claim to love, I need to be willing to say “I don’t know” and not fear reprisals or disdain, chances are they do not know it all either. I also need to know exactly what I believe and why I believe it so I can adequately defend it.