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A Taste for Civilization

Posted on: March 12th, 2012 by John

What do the House of Representatives, the Arab Spring and my family all have in common? The need for more civil conversations over a family dinner. That was Professor Janet Flammang’s message to the families attending the Campus Community Dinner Series at Southern Vermont College during a stop on her book tour.

As Professor Flammang argues in her new book, “A Taste for Civilization,” there was a time when members of Congress would eat together, sharing a meal and conversation after having vigorously debated each other on the Senate floor. They would engage in civil conversation about their lives, their respective districts and maybe even come to a compromise about a piece of legislation. Today, the Senate dining room is rarely used in such a bipartisan way, and much of the civility it generated is being lost.

On the weekends, the families of congressmen would gather together for dinners, as well. Professor Flammang argues that it is harder to polarize and demonize those sitting across the aisle when you have to break bread with their spouses and children.

Additionally, as Professor Flammang points out, civic engagement and education are happening around dinner tables in Egypt and Tunisia, as people discuss how to rebuild their civil societies after years of despotic oppression. Urgent conversations about who they are, what it means to be a citizen in a new democracy, and what direction their countries should take are tempered by the humanizing act of sharing nourishment and food.

And so, too, with my family. According to Flammang, when we sit down to eat, we are encouraging the ethics of civility, humor, diplomacy, a respect for kitchen work, and a care for heritage and ethnic traditions. She believes that we would be better served by returning cooking to the center of our lives, and having conversations at the table that produce “light instead of heat.”

As we look to our own country’s division and see the struggling new governments around the world, it may be good to remember that civility and democracy are being cultivated at our own tables. Family dinner conversations teach all the important lessons of democracy: taking turns, listening, cross-generational communication, and celebrating different tastes. It’s interesting to think how the future of our country might depend on how we treat each other at the table during our dinner conversations.