Friday, June 29, 2012

On Controversy

I consider myself a "beer snob." Life is too short to drink cheap beer and when I do imbibe, I sit back and enjoy the flavor. I wonder about the process and what makes the beer taste that way. I contemplate the complexities of brews. The fact that microbreweries and homebrewing is an "in" thing right now puts a smile on my face. It is like the misquoted Ben Franklin said: "Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

Deliciousness in a bottle
A while back I went to one of those fancy beer places with a friend, the type of bar that offers proudly over one hundred beers to choose from, several dozen on tap. We ordered a Xingu Black Beer from Brazil. The bartender made the comment that this beer's flavors were nuanced and revealed themselves "layered" as you drink the beer. He posed the alternative statement that many American beers have flavors that just "bam! hit ya!" all at once. I thought, "that statement can apply to more than beer" right after I thought "this beer is delicious!"

From a glance, our society does not reveal itself as nuanced, particularly when we express our opinions, particularly when those opinions relate to [fill in controversial adjective here] issues. Generally, we are presented with information and are expected to "bam! hit ya!" make a decision one way or another about it. It isn't that we are not nuanced society, filled with complexities, but we don't necessarily reveal that about ourselves, particularly when we are expected to make decisions about topics that are considered controversial.

Stop for a moment and consider that word "controversy." I looked it up in the thesaurus and found words like "altercation" and "contention" and "strife." The connotations imply a harsh and negative idea. Other synonyms include "debate" and "discussion" and "variance" and "difference." Nuance, anybody? Not that this will come as a surprise, but the media especially, likes to toss that word around. Controversy, BAM! The word just hits ya, all at once. So when does an issue get elevated from "debate" or "discussion" to "controversy?"

We have access to so much information constantly. We don't just get a "Bam!" any more. We get, "bam! bam! BAM! bam!" Our chances to let information soak in are limited. How often do we (individually or on a community level or heck, on a national level) allow time to contemplate?

[Take this moment as a chance to do so.]

Interpreters of history have many opportunities to talk about what we might label as "controversial." Allowing opportunities for contemplation may help to sooth the controversial beast. Knowing audiences vary, my question is: what should contemplative opportunities look like? I agree that a major part of interpreters' jobs is to provide for these opportunities, even facilitate this part of the visitor experience. Here's a real kicker: do we discuss then contemplate? Do we contemplate then discuss? What if a visitor is like me, an external thinker who verbalizes thoughts? How do we defuse controversy in a way that allows for visitors to feel safe to talk about their thoughts? Or better yet, how do we reveal a nuanced past without labeling it "controversial" first?

As much as we may be a "bam! hit ya!" kind of society, I think we could handle some layered discussion and time for contemplation.

*These thoughts are my own and only my own.

**And yes, it has crossed my mind that somebody reading this will find my beer analogy controversial. Sorry.

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