The opinions of strangers
“Not everyone can ride a bike. You can’t force everyone to ride a bike.”
My seatmate did what many people do when they are arguing something silly. They take it to the extreme because otherwise, their arguments collapse.
“Of course not everyone can ride a bike. Me saying ‘I don’t have a car’ isn’t me saying ‘everyone needs to bike.’ ‘Why am I forced into a car,’ is the question I’m asking.
“You aren’t. You bike. But a nurse, after a 16 hour shift, she isn’t going to bike. She can’t bike after work like that. It isn’t like she works from home.”
She, a real estate agent, would not agree with me that maybe it absolutely sucks that we don’t even have an east-west bike corridor in this city.
“Yes, some nurses could do this.” I say. “Biking after work is very cathartic. Anyway, there are other options for people who can’t bike.”
“Like what? Not the tramway!” Real estate agents in this city have no idea how much money they’ll make when this project is actually done. Until then, they say silly things.
“I dunno. It just feels like we need something to stop the ever-increasing number of cars on our roads. Our city was built for horse and carriage and now I have 6000 cars drive by my appartment every day.”
“You decided to live there;” another silly reply.
Nevermind. A real estate agent, married to a cop, is not someone who is going to agree with me on matters of public transit or biking or rats in the city (she thinks they’re bigger than cats. I have never seen one).
We weren’t supposed to be having this conversation. According to the prevailing wisdom about the state of the world today, we are apparently not supposed to be talking with people who we disagree with.
Have you heard this before? It’s what’s wrong with this world. Capitalism is killing us, the environment is collapsing, our politicians are corrupt, everyone is unhappy and schools are becoming more violent because we cannot be together with people we disagree with.
I hear this a lot and it always makes me laugh. It’s not true, unless you have fully curated a life where you talk to nobody about anything. But it’s a pernicious lie that is intended to make us all feel like we can’t really know what’s going on in the world because we have built sheltered existences where we simply cannot stand to be around someone who doesn’t think the same way that we do.
If you read the exchange above, which is pretty much how it went (except it was in French and I was probably more grammatically clumsy), it comes across as hostile. If it were online, I would have probably been less gracious and more hard nosed to the idea that I deserve to get asthma because I chose to live downtown (never mind the people who choose to live in the suburbs and poison us with their commutes).
But it wasn’t a hostile exchange. We found lots of common ground. We joked a bit, talked about life, made fun of the 3e lien. We were gracious, even in disagreement. She had an empty seat beside her and didn’t move over for more space. Where I wanted to convince her I was right, I laid heavy into stats and stories. Where she didn’t want the conversation to continue, she pivoted to animals. It was a very normal, mundane conversation.
Now, there is a crisis of conversation. That is true. But it isn’t a crisis of refusing to engage with people you disagree with, or an epidemic of calling people who are fascists who are actually just more ignorant than they are hateful. With every new online innovation to save us time IRL, our contact with strangers becomes increasingly rare. And our contact with strangers online becomes increasingly common. This is otherwise known as brain poison.
Contactless shopping, delivery services done under the cover of night or the speed demanded of Amazon, no leisure time, a lack of widespread hobbies and activities for adults to engage in, working from home, unsafe and inaccessible communities, commuting by car, only being outside with headphones jammed into ear canals, a lack of public spaces, a lack of public washrooms, a lack, a lack, a lack — our casual contacts are slowly becoming extinct.
The problem is that we need these relationships. We need to talk with strangers on a plane or at a bus stop or in the grocery store or in the park. We need casual contacts with people who are not related to us or not in our affinity groups (lol remember those?) or in our friend circles. We need strangers who can tell us something we’ve never heard before, like how there are deer on the Plaines of Abraham at 5 AM.
We need these interactions.
Don’t let them tell you that the crisis is that everyone is in their own little bubble because they can’t stand to come face to face with an idea that they disagree with. That isn’t what’s happening. What’s happening is deliberate; the final act of a political and economic system that wants to destroy community entirely, only to sell a version of it back to us online.
The problem is that this is killing us. We do need to talk to strangers and to debate with people we disagree with. But more than that, we need spaces where this is even possible. But that would be dangerous, I guess, in case we happened to discover that we like one another more than we’re told we should.