The Breakfast Club
Some mornings I stop for a breakfast sandwich and coffee at a local establishment on the way to work. The same group of seven to ten men is always gathered there around tables pushed together in the center of the room, drinking coffee and kibitzing about the affairs of the day.
The men are older and, I assume, retired. It’s hard not to eavesdrop on their conversation. It’s always the same: the country is going to hell, government is out of control, taxes are too high, the state is overrun with illegal immigrants, healthcare reform is another brick on the road to socialism, individual freedoms are being eroded, and nobody wants to work hard anymore and take responsibility for themselves.
It’s a breakfast club. Most of these men are likely on Medicare and collecting Social Security. Occasionally a couple of police officers will drop in for coffee and say hello. Outside, a city garbage truck is emptying the dumpster. Later in the day a health inspector might come by on a routine visit. When the men leave for wherever it is they are going next, they will drive on streets maintained by the city and obey traffic lights synchronized for efficient flow.
There are thousands of breakfast clubs like this all across the country, in cities and small towns, in low income and tony upscale communities, in ethnic neighborhoods and corporate shopping malls. They all gather in a physical place within a physical community – houses, roads, stores, energy and communication lines – that provides the material and technological scaffolding for them to construct a rich web of social reciprocity. Like the rest of us, they would find their freedom and opportunities severely restricted without this pervasive physical infrastructure of support.
This particular breakfast club meets in an affluent community. The participants appear reasonably healthy and laugh a lot. This is in stark contrast to their early morning conversation, which is uniformly negative and alienated, even bitter. Why is this so?
The reason screams in our face daily. Physical place is under assault by perceptualspace. Human consciousness is still tethered to a material world, but in advanced industrial societies it is increasingly captured – captivated – by a surfeit of images, messages and sounds that cascade over the media in all of their forms and into our lives, demanding our immediate and often visceral attention.
The effect is predictable and profound: human attention spans grow ever shorter to accommodate the sensory and cognitive overload. Critical reflection, which depends on a measure of distance between the observed and observer, becomes harder to achieve.Thinking is crowded out by the immediacy of responding to the constant barrage of images and messages. To handle the cognitive overflow and psychological dissonance that accompanies it, many resort to unreflective labeling and dogma of every variety into which they dump and classify the noise of the day: Obama is a socialist, Arizona is a backwater of racists, Muslims can’t be trusted, etc.
This lazy sorting reinforces social identity and group cohesion. The camaraderie of seeing one’s friends for breakfast on a regular basis and railing against bleating politicians, corrupt officials and inept institutions confirm one’s opinions, not challenge them. The 80-year-old retiree who gathers with his friends and complains of overreaching government, then follows his doctor’s advice to get a hip replacement at the government’s expense, may not appreciate someone pointing out the cognitive dissonance while his breakfast club is laughing at televised images of Democratic leadership touting the benefits of the health care reform law.
In contrast, the conversation is often more reflective when it’s between two people or in a smaller group, away from the interruptions of the media, and with time to actually hear another person’s story, tell your own and find common ground. Alas, this is harder to achieve in our attention-deficit culture, where the public space of civil discourse has been hijacked by the private space of personal communications devices and instant messaging.
Certainly there are breakfast clubs, book clubs and discussion groups with give and take between members of different backgrounds and points of view, but the trend is clearly toward more fragmentation along prepackaged and “commodified” positions of shared interest, ideology, demographics and culture. This isn’t necessarily new – human history has always been a protracted and messy clash of vested interests and ideas – but what is different today is the sheer volume and pervasiveness of circulating images that define and shape what passes for “civil” discourse these days.
It’s not that there aren’t plenty of “reasonable” people out there who are capable of coming to some standard of rational, all things considered judgment. It’s that there is little open space left in the hyperculture for this time- and attention-dependent dialogue to occur.
Perhaps I’ll start a breakfast club for contrarians when I retire. No one would agree on anything by definition.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.