There was a time in the not so distant past when people made their plans, dreamed their dreams, shared their goals, and solved their problems by simply talking to each other. Some of us did it really well, and the rest of us sort of muddled through, but nobody could hide behind voicemail, e-mail, texting, or Facebook when having to deal with tough questions or sensitive issues. Everyone knew that you had to meet face-to-face, take the time to form your words, and listen carefully to what you got in return. You were expected to be seen as being accountable for your actions, and that took time and effort.
A lot has changed in twenty years. No, this is not a rant against social media, the internet or modern technology. Nor is it a hazy appeal to bringing back the rotary dial phone, snail mail, and portable TVs with rabbit ears and thirteen channels (though vinyl records and drive-ins seem to be having a comeback. Go figure.) Rather, it is about reclaiming the “art of conversation”, namely, the ability to talk to one another with wit and wisdom, confidence and eloquence, and to listen to one another without hysterical defensiveness, lewd mockery, or irrational hatred. And where issues were presented not as “all or nothing” but with shades of grey, and where everyone, friend and foe alike, had a place at the table. When you look back at the building of the Interstate highway system, the Hoover Dam, the railways, subways, ports, the massive Hydro Electric projects, public schools, etc., there was a sense of shared purpose, where corporations made money and citizens got value, and where government was seen as a good and effective partner. In 1952 the over 2,000 mile TransCanada natural gas pipeline was proposed and approved nine months later. Imagine trying that today. You can’t even say the word “pipeline” without hearing the word “protest” in the background. Do we all have to suffer from the tyranny of one, that “one complaint” that gets kids banned from playing street hockey, or patio patrons from enjoying live music on a summer night, or winter skaters who might fall through the thick ice, or neighbor fighting neighbor because of an overgrown tree branch threatening to drop sap on that shiny new BMW in the driveway?
The problem with relying on “rights” or “entitlements” to solve disputes, is that you can only enforce them by coercion, and solutions are a zero-sum game, with losers and winners. Should condo rules ban mothers and toddlers from swimming pools, or should we have family hours, or allow separate wading pools for the kids? Should schools ban outdoor recess when it is icy, for fear of being sued, or should parents sign waivers that allow their kids to have fun in the snow? In our zeal to take “risk” out of life, we have also taken out the “fun.” Our challenge is to find the balance between the rights of the individual and rights of our society. We can’t always look to the courts, or human rights tribunals, or the Charter, to decide what to do, because what is legal is not always just. The best solutions can only be found in us.
As Winston Churchill famously said, “To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war.” Try talking instead, it can work wonders you never imagined.