Marginal Conversations (MC) is a community building group that encourages reflection about our working theories about reality through conversations in community. MC cultivates continuing conversations at “third places” , or informal meeting places outside of home and work where people spend much of their spare time and form close community ties. Examples of third places include coffee shops, pubs, smoking shops, places of worship and community centers. Third place regulars can participate in continuing conversations with each other that grow in depth over time (thus the “conversations” in “Marginal Conversations”). But what are “marginal” conversations, and how can they build community?
Think of the margins of a page in a book. When we read a page of text, we’re paying attention to the words, not the blank margins surrounding the text. The margins don’t get a lot of attention, but it would be difficult to read if the margins weren’t keeping the text in alignment. The text is justified against the margins in a way that gives it order and makes it readable. Everybody has a working picture or theory of how the world works that serves as their “text.” The “margins” in our lives are the assumptions that frame our theories and hold them up. Just as we don’t pay attention to the margins of the page when we’re reading the text, we rarely pay attention to our background assumptions about how the world works as we rely on them to interpret our experience. We look through our marginal theories at the world.
MC encourages reflection about these working theories of reality. These theories orient us to what feels real and define what is significant. They shape our identities and memories, they identify problems and opportunities. If we’re not reflective about our margins, we will rely on faulty assumptions to solve the problems that the same assumptions have caused. Reflecting on our margins is not an abstract, impractical exercise. Our margins decide what actions are practical or worthwhile in the first place. Reflecting on our marginal theories helps us to live our lives with integrity and grow in places where we have become stuck.
Taking ownership of our theories about reality is necessary for life in community, particularly in democracies. We can’t understand ourselves or someone who is truly different if we are not aware of the assumptions that determine what seems real to us. When we are trying to understand someone who is significantly different, we usually try to align their “text” with our “margins.” A text that is logical and coherent within one one marginal frame may not make sense on the terms of another frame. This leads to frustration, because the way a text aligns with our margins structures our understanding of what is:
- rational or irrational
- enlightened or ignorant
- useful or useless
- healthy or unhealthy
- helpful or harmful
- safe or dangerous
- just or unjust
- true or false
- good or bad
- trustworthy or doubtful
- interesting or boring
- significant or trivial
- beautiful or ugly
Conversations can reach an impasse quickly when margins are in conflict. This is part of the reason why public life in America can so often look like people shouting bumper-stickers at each other. It’s easy to walk away from these conversations seeing the other person as irrational, close-minded, dogmatic or bigoted because their text is unjustified against our margins.
Learning to take responsibility for our own assumptions and learning to understand other people on their own terms are necessary steps in learning to live well with real diversity in public life. This is not an attempt to sentimentalize diversity by promising that we will all get along once we finally learn to be nicer, more tolerant and reasonable. It is an invitation to live with integrity and avoid unnecessary conflict. Marginal Conversations seeks to build a community where people can build trust and habits such as patience, hospitality, and critical thinking that are necessary for sustaining shared life.
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Read and discuss books and ideas through the Viral Reading project.