One of the guidelines at our Shabbat table is the “one conversation” rule. Unlike a dinner party where the polite thing is to converse with the person on one’s left and right ( I confess that my notion of dinner party protocol may be shaped by novels written in the 19th century), we want everyone at the table involved in one discussion. To that end, we try to gather a congenial group and to raise issues of general interest.
Well, every rule has an exception. I can think of more than one occasion when our close friends Liz and Brian were over and the conversation turned to some principle of physics. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Brian is a brilliant physicist. His wife, Liz, might never have studied physics had she not married him, but in order to share more fully in his life, she has become quite a student of physics herself. My husband has a physics background and our son, Ari, majored in that subject in college.
I can think of a few times that I, along with some of the other guests, were totally befuddled by the conversation this group started. While we all have perfectly respectable I.Q.’s and can speak intelligently on many subjects, when the physics talk began it left us behind. Despite that fact that we couldn’t all participate in, let alone understand, the topic under discussion, it was fascinating to listen to the exchange of ideas.
In contrast to this, I remember one meal when we had three visitors whose words made absolutely no sense to me. Since they were all bright individuals, my first thought was that the conversation was over my head. After listening for a while longer I concluded that it wasn’t a lack of understanding on my part, but rather that our guests were spouting nonsense, influenced by a seminar they had just attended.
I felt the same way when I read a recent interview with the actor Woody Harrelson. He was asked how he felt working on a film that had army support, considering the fact that he was against the Iraq war. His response included these words,
“It was a good experience for me because it’s one thing to consider yourself pro-peace, like I consider myself…”
Excuse me. What exactly does it mean to be “pro-peace”? There are valid and cogent reasons to either support or oppose specific military actions. Good people who articulate arguments on both sides are “pro-peace;” they differ on how best to achieve it.
One of the steps on my road to homeschooling was listening to my daughter’s third grade teacher expound on how SSR would be a vital part of the classroom experience. SSR? I found out that stood for “sustained silent reading,” or in simple language – reading quietly to oneself. Considering that my daughter and her classmates would happily read from morning till night and turning reading into a time-limited, mandated school subject could only diminish the pleasure they got from books, I decided that in this case labeling reading SSR was an attempt to make an everyday activity sound complicated and in need of professional supervision.
Similarly, depending on my mood, I either laugh or cringe when I see an area labeled a “gun free zone.” It would be more honest to label the location a “law abiding citizen gun free zone”. Fantasy play may be valuable for toddlers, but it is dangerous for adults.
I love having Brian and Liz over and I am perfectly happy to be exposed to differing points of view. Unfortunately, our public discourse is filled less with people explaining cogent views to others and more with senseless babble designed to squash intelligent discourse. Words are too often used for propaganda purposes rather than enlightenment, to obfuscate rather than illuminate. In our years of homeschooling we provided our children with many hours of SSR. We also devoted many hours to twaddle detection, hopefully ensuring that they will be able to evaluate what they read and hear.