I'm not really an eavesdropper. (That word, by the way, dates back to the sixteenth century and refers to the practice of standing within the "eavesdrop" of a house--i.e., the area where drippings from the eaves will fall.)
As I said, I'm not really an eavesdropper. But I spend some hours each day in public places (coffee shops, the local health club). Moreover, I'm quiet--mostly reading or editing texts or riding an exercise bike--so no one really pays any attention to me. So for them, I'm not there. And I like that. Sometimes, though, I wish people noticed just a little more where they are--and what effect(s) they are having.
- One guy comes into the coffee shop all the time, Bluetooth device affixed to his ear, sits in an easy chair near me (usually), and holds loud conversations for twenty to thirty minutes. Every day. I wish I could report something of interest from his monologues, but he mostly talks about quotidian drivel. But it's loud, so it sounds important, I guess. I want to punch him.
- The other day--Tuesday--I sat near a young woman who Skyped the entire two hours I was there. She was wearing headphones, so I couldn't hear the folk(s) she was talking with, but the whole time she was as loud as a kid in a middle school lunchroom who just lost her juice box. She was mostly talking about a course she was taking--something in human growth and development. Names like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers appeared throughout her conversation--names I've not heard since I was taking psych courses back in the 1970s. I didn't learn anything--except that I wanted to punch her.
Those two punchables aside, in those coffee shops and at the health club (especially in the men's locker room) I hear lots of political commentary, lots of sports commentary (guess which is where?). And virtually all of it lacks novelty. Virtually all if it, I can tell, is merely recycled commentary from political and sports talk shows and Internet sites--uttered, of course, as if the speaker had just been to Mt. Olympus where he/she received it directly from a god--after, presumably, some sexual activity. Oh, those randy gods! No something-for-nothing from them!
Received wisdom. (The use of received in this fashion goes back to the fifteenth century--we've been doing this for a long, long time!) Wisdom doesn't really apply to most of it, though. It's generally received opinion we're talking about. So many of us seek out those publications and other media outlets that tell us what to think about issues--or reinforce our biases. (I'm not excepting myself: I read lefties Paul Krugman and Gail Collins regularly in the Times op-ed pages.) There is nothing new about this, of course. Anyone who has spent any time reading American newspapers from earlier centuries knows that they were always biased and partisan--fiercely, even egregiously so. Political parties had their own papers, and the "truth" was not really of much concern in the reporting and editorializing.
We're not good about seeking out contradictory views--or even checking the validity/reliability/accuracy of the sources we read and subsequently parrot. On Facebook, it's especially bad. I regularly see postings and photographs and memes--representing viewpoints from both sides of today's political divide--that are just patently false, laughably ridiculous. What to conclude? The poster doesn't care? If the post synchs with his/her beliefs, that's proof enough of its value? Lazy? Doesn't want to bother doing a little research to see if the item is true? Evil? Knows it's a lie or a grotesque distortion but proceeds anyway? (I'm sorry, but if you knowingly pass on lies, you're evil.) Playful? Puts it online ... just to see? Dumb? Unable to distinguish fact from opinion?
I've always believed that the true sign of an intelligent person is skepticism--an unwillingness to accept without question any idea or claim just because it confirms a personal bias. I worry about our social cohesion us if we surrender our responsibility to be skeptical, to investigate, to find out the facts before we form our views. We can disagree about what the facts mean, but if we can't agree on what they are, then no conversation is possible. The social fabric tears easily when it's sewn with specious threads.
But I don't think anything's going to change anytime soon--not if what I hear in coffee shops and locker rooms is any measure. Not that I'm an eavesdropper, mind you ...