By Calvin Hutcheon
America, theoretically, was built around conversation, the stuff of democracy, yet today we seem to be struggling when it comes to listening. These last four years have been characterized by partisan squabbling. Many times it looks as if the only thing that can be agreed upon is that there will be no agreement. Far too much energy is put into fighting along the party lines, as the push to keep Susan Rice from being appointed Secretary of State demonstrated.
Unfortunately, this has become normal. Conversation no longer characterizes the climate of American politics. Could this, in the end, be a problem that has less to do with stubborn individuals and more with a system that can’t adapt to the changing needs of the country?
While many want to have bipartisan conversation and many want to have a more collegial atmosphere, there are no longer the social guidelines or expectations in Washington that facilitated the camaraderie that were present only a few decades ago. No longer are there shared dinners between both Democrats and Republicans and no longer is there a serious effort to get to know colleagues across the ideological isle. There are fewer opportunities for interaction and there is no longer a culture of protocol in which to approach those not in your party. This normlessness naturally makes it difficult to function, but that’s not the only weight on the backs of senators.
They must reconcile traditional ideals with the expectations of today. This is no easy feat, partially because American values, such as freedom and self-determination, as well as representation in government, are open to interpretation and the whims of changing times. Expectations are imposed not only by voters, but by party guidelines and the influence of special interest groups along with lobbyists. While this stalemate has been bewailed by the media, there has been very little examination of what has caused it.
Institutions are slow to adapt. With change being fueled by advancing technology, governing bodies are struggling more and more to keep up. Normal is shifting so quickly, the political culture is struggling to remold itself. Congressional dysfunction is a symptom.
Alienation and division within politics and within American culture is a sign. While political bodies have always struggled to keep up with the movements of the times, the disconnect today is more pronounced and will continue to lag. As society, technology and attitudes continue to progress, institutions will fall further behind, not able to change quickly enough. Empires that cannot adapt shatter; institutions that cannot evolve split at the seams.
Social norms are the glue that holds a society together. They are the unspoken rules that shape the way we interact. As many old guidelines, such as slavery and sexism, have fallen out of fashion there is an opportunity to create new ones. Recognizing that we are subject to these unspoken rules could allow us to use them to our advantage, creating a more just and fluent society.
Right now, though, we are building a culture of anomie. Good examples of this attitude are: the movements to secede from the U.S., the Tea Party and the impeach Obama movement. At a time when conversation is desperately needed, by the looks of it, America is headed in the opposite direction.
Like the halls of Congress, my grandparents’ cul de sac faces many of the same challenges: difficulty fostering community and conversation. Though there have been some attempts to rectify this, such as the construction of small parks and a “community center,” they don’t appear to be working.
Planned communities are not meeting needs, either. Many of the people who live in these places are very busy, with both heads of household working. There is little time for socialization with their neighbors, let alone with their own families, yet there is the assumption that people will find the time to talk, be it over the garden fence, on the front porch, or in the parlors of neighbors.
This is unrealistic. Community is vital and I believe we must adapt so as to balance the obligations of work with the potential support of a neighborhood, but how can this be done?
Communities are unfortunately not built; they arise organically, from every conversation, discussion and interaction. So no matter how many parks are laid out, there will not be an underlying change without individuals conferencing with one another. However, the subdivision does offer an unusual opportunity: an equal playing field from which to create a community.
Uniform housing and unexceptionalism have, for the denizens of the cul de sac, created a classless pocket. There are very few dividing factors in these ironically communistic places. This lack of stratification, polarization, partisanship and generally strong emotions would make it an ideal nest for a young, earnest community.
Creating a culture of conversation is a balance, of course. It must arise organically, yet with goals in mind. The people in it must be motivated by each other (it helps when the group is fairly small — below 200 people — one of the reasons neighborhoods are ideal for its birth) and open and respectful of ideas put forward. This town hall meeting-style layout allows the best ideas to be heard and promoted, and the combined brain power of the group to be utilized. More dynamic solutions to local problems can be agreed upon in this fashion.
Occupy Wall Street has been a sterling example of this. The movement was a success, if only for a short time, not because it had uniform demands or a crystal clear goal, but because it didn’t. Zuccotti Park was a centerpiece of conversation. Ideas were floated and discussed, and issues brought up. No one claimed to have the solution, but the consensus was that together, we could find it, through listening to one another.
While the world may be confusing, with technology making interactions more distant; while our lives remain hectic and the whole current political climate may seem discouraging, one simple act can counteract that: talk with your neighbors, council with your friends. Have lunch under a tree and have a friendly discussion.
We can decide what is important to us. We can decide how to define our social guidelines. Why not make honest, down-to-earth listening a prominent feature in the future we are building? Slowly but surely, this mindset can permeate all walks of life. If a culture of conversation can become part of everyday life, it will, in turn, become part of everyday governance.
Take the first step. Listen to what your friends, family, co-workers and neighbors have to say. Create a culture of conversation within your own household, and within your own neighborhood. We have an amazing opportunity here, to create customs for good in our ever-changing world. We are the elements of change and the time is upon us.
About the author
Calvin Hutcheon is eighteen years old, and spent a lot of his youth abroad — living almost three years in the Indian sub-continent. In the past year or so he’s been traveling in the U.S., rediscovering his home country. While on Vashon Island, Washington, he founded the Insomniac Storytelling Society, a group that celebrates myth, magic, rhyme and improvisation.