Our Opinion: The reach to understand, word by word, face to face

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An odd word kept coming up Thursday night, as three people who have thought a lot about how Americans treat each other sat talking from comfortable chairs on a Pittsfield stage. Plush chairs, actually, the kind with cushions and arms that invite their occupants to settle in and let a conversation unfold. This night, panelists at The Eagle's inaugural "Conversation Series" event warmed to an important topic: the ability of people to engage in civil and productive exchanges with those who hold differing views in our contentious political age.

The word that kept coming up is known to sociologists and scientists, but not in common use: Atomization. It refers to the process of splitting people away from one another. It weakens social ties that for centuries of human culture have provided safety and succor. The trend was explored in Robert D. Putnam's 2000 best-selling book "Bowling Alone." While people still hit the lanes to sling balls toward pins, they do so, less and less often, as members of leagues.

Trust in American institutions is eroding — an issue illustrated the day of the forum by the Senate Judiciary Committee's proceedings on Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination. As social ties loosen, are old habits of civility in American public life headed for the dustbin?

We hope not. But Thursday's panelists, all veterans of Berkshires journalism who now spend their work days pondering the place of religion in American life, weren't hopeful. They cited statistics, shared anecdotes, engaged in playful debate and even recited a poem from memory. They enacted the kind of reasoned exchange that seeks to take a truth, in a listener's mind, from Point A to Point B.

A good conversational isn't a lecture. And the dozens of people taking this in at a Barrington Stage Company theater didn't expect simple takeaways. If there was one, it might be humility. Great conversationalists keep in mind what they don't know and probe others for insight.

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One panelist, R. Gustav Niebuhr, director of programs in religion and media at Syracuse University, quoted the Irish poet William Butler Yeats: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."

As the panelists reflected on what pulls people apart in our age, audience members demonstrated, with their presence, that many still believe in the power of face-to-face conversation to open minds. They murmured with concern when the topic turned to the internet and to the harm people do to one another through faceless communication over social media. Alan Cooperman, one of the panelists, leads studies at the Pew Research Center in global religions. A report just this week from a different Pew division shared the finding that 59 percent of teenagers in the U.S. have been subjected to online bullying, whether name-calling, the spread of false rumors, physical threats or other hazards.

A night of conversation can't do much about that, other than set heads shaking with dismay. But one by one, serious and fair-minded public conversations get good and important work done.

We invite our readers to join a future audience, bringing their questions, and ears, to this new series.

The next event comes Oct. 25, when Linda Greenhouse, a former reporter for The New York Times, will discuss the future of the U.S. Supreme Court with Francis X. Spina, formerly of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. The panel will be moderated by Fredric Rutberg, president and publisher of The Eagle.


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