I have been going to a number of Meetups lately. If you're the sort of person who wants to meet people and do things and don't mind if those two objectives coincide, then Meetup is a quite nice means of doing so. You sign up, enter your zip code, choose a bunch of interests, and voila, the site offers you an array of local groups of people, meeting up and doing all sorts of different things. There's even an erotic open mic night in Philadelphia, alongside the more ordinary ethical humanists, social 20 and 30 somethings, knitting groups, and German emigres.
As an erstwhile student of philosophy now dabbling in being a boring adult or something like that, I have been taking advantage of some of the more intellectual possibilities offered on the site. There's the Thinking Society, which tackles all sorts of different topics (recent subjects include capitalism, Joseph Campbell, and biological bases for religiosity) from all sorts of different backgrounds and approaches. The group sizes for that one tend to be a bit larger, so I don't speak very often, but I like the opportunity to think about topics that are a little further afield for me. Then there's the philosophy society, which is obviously a little closer to home since we mainly talk about traditional subjects of philosophy. I've been attempting to come up with discussion topics that I could potentially facilitate. Maybe I'll test some of them out here at a later time. Anyway.
It has been pleasant to have the motivation to read more challenging, thought-provoking pieces (although I don't think I've been too bad at this since I graduated... I have already published my 2015 reading list, so you can form your own opinion) and the opportunity to then discuss them with people who are generally quite opinionated, intelligent, and well-spoken. I am also at times delighted and at times chagrined to hear people expressing a variety of different viewpoints, and not just the sleekly self-congratulatory ultraliberalism of the academy that I left behind. Even if I'm inclined to support that liberalism, I'd rather be part of a society that actually practices freedom of speech than one that pays it lip service before silencing absolutely everyone who gives off even the barest whiff of privilege. Sorry. That's a subject for another day.
I have also come to appreciate something that I strove for in college and still don't think I, or indeed many other people if I may be so frank, do very well. That is, I think that as a general rule, we are quite bad at taking the time and paying the attention necessary to grasp someone else's meaning and to address it directly. This is actually part of why I don't like the group sizes for the thinking society--there is a point at which there are simply too many people for the discussion to effectively address the contributions of all of the members, and frequently the discussion proceeds not so much in a regular, linear manner, but rather in sort of sporadic fits and awkward leaps, somewhat moderated by the discussion facilitator but inevitably doomed to a certain degree of incoherency. Which is how you get to the end of a discussion of what capitalism is without arriving at anything close to a definition.
But my actual point here is that it takes a great deal of discipline to read or listen carefully, faithfully reconstruct an argument, and stay on point, especially when there are so many lovely tangents to chase and personal grievances to air (see also: this blog post). Sometimes those are fruitful and enlightening, but frequently they seem to either be self-aggrandizing or flatly off-topic, or both.
I don't think this makes me any less appreciative of what is occurring at these meet ups. Rather, in the midst of my gratitude for even the existence of such fora, I am all the more grateful for those people who are capable of cutting through the red herrings and cockamamie to ask, "How is this relevant?" and "What about x's argument are you disagreeing with here?" And likewise, I am grateful for the ones who clearly and deliberately address their speaking opportunities to that which is actually relevant, whether from the reading, the major question, or a preceding comment. Because this is honestly one of the most difficult things to do, especially when there is a lot that could be said and a lot of heat that goes into the opinions surrounding the subject.
Ultimately, I suppose it boils down to being a good listener/reader, and that is obviously the sort of skill that will benefit you in many different aspects of life.
Conclusion #2: If you're the sort of person who feels uncomfortable speaking spontaneously in group settings and you're just overwhelmed by these people who seem to be producing speech with very little difficulty, never fear: half of what they're saying is off-topic or accidentally structured as an informal logical fallacy; they're just less concerned about checking what they're about to say for its substance.
Conclusion #3 (...and yet, nowhere near Tolkien status yet): I sound like an arrogant twit, so I should probably stop talking before I alienate everyone who is reading this, although the ones that I know of are reasonably good conversationalists who *might* extend the professional courtesy of a charitable reading, so hopefully we're still on safe ground.