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Feature - The art of conversation

Dialogue Cafés show a true exchange of ideas is not a one-way street

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I have a confession to make. I’m 28 years old and I can stop a conversation dead in its tracks.

This is not an art I cultivate. A skill aided by a shelf full of how-to books. It’s not actually a talent at all. Typically it’s in response to an innocent inquiry, some unsuspecting conversation-making. Like, "So why are you a vegetarian?" Or, "What’s so wrong with SUVs/McDonald’s/George Bush/trophy homes, anyway?" There’s no NORAD warning for them (yellow alert: Subject likely to explode). Having shocked or browbeaten my listeners out of conversation, out of dialogue, out of reach, I wade through the awkward aftermath alone. It’s not my most prized ability.

Peter Gibian, an English professor at McGill University who has focused on the American parlour phenomenon of the 1800s, notes that the goal of a talk-fest "is to keep the conversation going, rather than to stop conversation. If you say something, it must be a prod for other voices to come in."

Touche.

Confession? I hunger for the deep connection, the meeting of minds, the stimulus that makes my grey matter pulsate with little shocks of electric current. So when William Roberts, the Executive Director of the Whistler Forum, announced that Eleanor Wachtel was coming to Whistler, to host a Dialogue Café, I leapt. The host of CBC’s Writers and Company. An evening talking about books, writers, the writing life. A gathering of like-minded people!

Not like-minded, he corrected me. People might not agree with you at all. And that’s the point – the debate, the dialogue, the exchange of ideas.

Right. Whatever. I’m gearing up. Read up on writers and dissidents who are being silenced by totalitarian regimes. In some countries, disagreeing with the government can get you run over by a tank (unknown student, Tiananmen Square, 1989) or a bulldozer, (Rachel Corrie, Gaza Strip, 2003), arrested (Arundhati Roy, India, 2000), detained (Ang San Suu Kyi, Burma, 1989-1995, 2000-2002, 2003) or strung up and hanged by the neck (Ken Saro-Wiwa, Nigeria,1995). I want to do some honour to these people. I want to write about dissent, about the brave voice, about having something important to say.

I seek out my favourite Whistler voices for a preparatory reconnaissance, for the skinny on being impassioned.

Confession? I love Kenny Melamed. I love what he stands for and that he can summon the energy to keep standing up, to not compromise, to not sell-out. I ask Ken what he stands for.

"Social justice is a big one," he answers. "Equality. Maybe that comes into social justice, but it disturbs me when people use their power and influence over others. To let people have equal opportunity no matter their status and wealth. Living within our means."

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