Yes, Tish Harrison Warren, the Anglican priest who writes a weekly column to fill up empty space in the New York Times, has once again proffered a cure for the nation’s ills. It’s trivial and far from new, but at least it doesn’t involve God. The email I got with the column (Ceiling Cat help me, I subscribe) was headed, “Why chatting with your barista could help save America.” In the paper (click on screenshot below), it has a different title:
The entire thesis can be summarized with one of her paragraphs:
To learn how to love our neighbors we need cultural habits that allow us to share in our common humanity. We need quiet, daily practices that rebuild social trust. And we need seemingly pointless conversation with those around us.
By “pointless,” she means “avoiding hot-button issues like politics”. Her notion, which many others have suggested before, is that you can heal divisions between people by getting the “sides” to know each other. If you like or at least are friendly with a political opponent, you’ll find a way to eventually agree on politics.
This simple message, however, is unlikely to heal any divisions—after all, are citizens supposed to wait until they discuss these issues?—or are they supposed to become pals with their barista before bringing them up? Warren dilates at length about her hale-fellow-well-met Texas dad whom everybody loved and nobody hated, for he just cracked jokes and made pleasantries. He didn’t talk politics.
It goes on and on and on, without telling us how, after we’re pals with Trumpies, we can then begin to discuss abortion, the border, the unstolen election and so on.
And so we have the Paper of Record giving us stuff like this:
I see moments of this in my own life. I moved states recently and feel the loss of seemingly unimportant local relationships I’d built where we lived before. I have no idea if my favorite former barista and I shared any political or ideological beliefs. We likely disagree on important issues. But I don’t care. I know he adores his infant niece and I regularly asked how she was doing. He is working to get through grad school, and I found myself genuinely rooting for this person I barely knew.
Each of us is more than the sum of our political and religious beliefs. We each have complex relationships with the people we love. We each have bodies that get sick, that enjoy good tacos or the turning of fall. We like certain movies or music. We laugh at how babies sound when they sneeze. We hurt when we skin a knee. The way we form humanizing, nonthreatening interactions around these things taps into something real about us. We are three-dimensional people who are textured, interesting, ordinary and lovely. . . .
. . . Of course, to heal the deep divisions in our society we need profound political and systemic change. But though we need more than just small talk, we certainly do not need less than that. As a culture, our conversations can run so quickly to what divides us, and this is all the more true online. We cannot build a culture of peace and justice if we can’t talk with our neighbors. It’s in these many small conversations where we begin to recognize the familiar humanity in one another. These are the baby steps of learning to live together across differences.
Yes, and maybe if the Taliban got to know more Afghan women they would eventually allow them to go to school. Maybe if more Texas lawmakers had cake and coffee with pregnant women they would rescind their draconian anti-choice law. When Lyndon Johnson rammed the Civil Rights Bills through the Senate, he didn’t make small talk with the Senators. He used his leverage and power to bring around the Southern opponents.
Yes, we have to be able to discuss things civilly, for then, so they say, consensus will come. That’s what Biden ran his campaign on, and look where it’s gotten him.
How much longer will the NYT torture us this way?