Our First Color Salon: Recalling a Human Capacity to Do Good
One evening of good conversation provided the remedy for cynical ideas about what lies ahead.
Our digital lives make it so that information washes over us all day, every day. People announce when they decide to quit social media and disconnect for any period of time. We have to devise a plan not to watch all the stories develop in a never-ending scroll of updates. We need to protect time to think.
An evening of deliberate thinking proved to be more refreshing than the usual social media detox. We started the evening as skeptics. An evening of thoughtful conversation restored our faith in humanity.
We developed an event called a Color Salon so we could make time to think together. As a model, we looked to the European Enlightenment’s intellectual salons, but we had doubts that it would work via Zoom. About a dozen concerned citizens gathered to try it anyway. You can also read more about our general plan for these conversations.
We wanted to spend more time with big ideas, which make the whole project of living in society work. Political or is a community committed to developing our color sense:
“In your reading, find books to improve your color sense, your sense of shape and size in the world.”
—Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
There were moments when we talked over one another and awkwardly negotiated who would speak next. We still enjoyed an evening of shared insight with lots of laughter and smart fun too.
Framing the Discussion about Humanity
For the evening, we made an inquiry into humanity itself. We shared a focus question and a couple of short excerpts in advance of our virtual salon.
We gathered around the question, “How does human nature make self-government necessary and difficult?” To guide our thinking, we had the voice of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. In his speech, “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience,” King said:
“Another thing in this movement is the idea that there is within human nature an amazing potential for goodness. There is within human nature something that can respond to goodness.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience”
This passage also included a collection of classical thinking on the human experience being one of a “disturbing dualism.” Humans have a capacity to reason and do good as well as a capacity to give way to passions and do evil. These ancient ideas turned out to be the crux of our conversation.
For a more contemporary read, we turned to Dr. Ibram Kendi’s essay, “A Battle Between the Two Souls of America.” In November 2020, Kendi wrote:
“There is a divide in America between the souls of injustice and justice: souls in opposition like fire and ice, like voters and voter subtraction, like Trump and truth.”
—Dr. Ibram Kendi, “A Battle Between the Two Souls of America” (The Atlantic)
Will Harris joined us from the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, and he started the conversation by challenging the very idea of this dualism. He pointed to Aristotle’s Politics and argued that we join political societies to be more human. Together, we do more good than we do as individuals. In community, we have the capacity for a type of goodness that none of us can do on our own.
“When we come to the final and perfect association… we have already reached the city [or polis]. This may be said to have reached the height of full self-sufficiency; or rather we may say that while it comes into existence for the sake of mere life, it exists for the sake of a good life.”
The project of humanity is to increase goodness. There is no need either to escape or to instruct our passions. We join societies to be more human, to promote goodness.
We aligned our evening to the color yellow (humanity) in Harris’s seven-color model of political order. He asked us to consider what comes to mind when we see yellow—happiness, the warmth of the sun, a brightness or cheery disposition. Few of us would respond with “cowardice.” We first see the potential for good.
Can we tune our ideas about humanity to these ideas too?
Looking Again at the Size and Shape of Human Capacity for Goodness
In rejecting the idea of a dualism inherent in the nature of man, Harris rejected the partiality and corrupting forces it accommodates. The group assembled started to think about today’s problems of tribalism and political polarization. What can bring a people so divided together in the shared pursuit of anything? We wear party identities and wrap ourselves in team colors like fervent sports fans.
Harris made quick use of the example. He said that this is proof that we can put on this kind of partiality for a moment, with familiar roles and consent of everyone participating, and then take it off. We can return to thinking of what is best for the wholeness of humanity and not just our tribe.
One member reflected that he enjoys going to a game and seeing friends sitting side-by-side in opposing jerseys. We know how to think in both partial and total terms at the same time. One mental model does not preclude the other, and it does not have to be permanent.
Our evening turned into a celebration of what is amazing and wonderful about humanity. We reflected on what good humanity has done and could continue to do. Instead of human nature making anything necessary and difficult, we started to consider how failures in other domains of our political lives escape notice. We write off the idea of doing better because we have accepted this idea of dualism and the difficulty of human nature.
We write off failures with the idea that someone is “only human” or that “men will be men.” We could instead use our understanding of the full capacity of humanity to demand that we do better.
“I enjoyed that people were more relaxed and willing to engage in the discussion and ask questions. I was able to walk away from the experience with a new method to discuss humanity in my classroom.”
We reflected on what it would mean to look at humanity, see its potential and its flaws, and still see something of wonder. This proposition took the conversation to unexpected places, like considering how Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and other literature reads like a love letter to the human race. With its flaws and all, the human race still turns itself to doing what good it can, to promoting goodness in the world around them.
This first Color Salon proved to be the perfect remedy for putting the last year behind us. We want to do it again and would like you to consider joining us. One evening of a good conversation made it easier to wake up the next morning feeling a little less cynical about what lies ahead.
“I loved turning over in my head how to make my thoughts more colorful. How does humanity and nature lay the groundwork for being a good citizen? I love getting to find my questions in groups where it’s safe to experiment.”
We’ll save you a seat at our virtual table.
With our first event now in the books, we are now in the mode of “taking reservations” for our next event.
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