I had a discussion with a friend recently about how highly we regarded cultures that emphasized meals as a gustatory and social event, instead of our own, which commodifies time and makes eating a solitary habit even in the presence of others. The TV dinner comes to mind. T. S. Eliot said, “Television is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.” We sit around one another and learn nothing, say nothing, and most importantly we expose nothing.
I’m not going to give some hackneyed rhetoric against this practice, which no doubt any Westerner has heard (at least of the English speaking world) because more important than targeting it is understanding why it exists, and also because it most certainly has been spotted since its inception.
It’s impossible to address this issue without wondering whether the TV dinner or any other noncommunicative meal is used as a bandage for familial dysfunction. Rather than argue or miscommunicate, it’s much easier to avoid one another with a distraction, or simply avoid the meal altogether. Many families are so busy that neither child nor parent can find time in their schedules that allows for simultaneous dining (and tell me that’s not a symptom of something). But why do families miscommunicate or fail to communicate at all?
For so many reasons: technology, class, education, interests, personality, culture. It would be hard to name all the culprits, nor very productive, because these are all, again, symptoms.
If one were to look at the happier families or groups, one sees shared interests, shared values, shared language (I don’t mean the same as in all speak, say Finnish, but that the words being used are understood by all parties, carrying the same definition. And pay attention to the word “shared”). The Scandinavians are generally considered to be the happiest group of people in the world. If examines them, they will see racial, religious, cultural, and social homogeneity. The more similar we are to one another, the happier we are. I have to warn here that I am not at all advocating any kind of ethnic cleansing or forced conformity. But this dissonance we find in American culture matters (I can only speak for my own country), and it is very evident in all aspects of life.
Just look at the proliferation of articles dealing with how to be a man, or how a man should treat or ask out a woman, or etiquette to hook ups or so many other phenomena; it’s very evident that we don’t really know what to do or say, even within our own social groups. Nothing can be tacit anymore because anything or nothing can be implied, too much is misunderstood or not understood at all. Values and mores are in complete and constant flux, and between generations this gap can be even more pronounced. Increasing the nuclear family is strained, and where before there were strong communities to keep people from falling through the cracks, the advance of the center-less city has decimated such a net. We are constantly segmented into our own age groups and rarely work or interact with people of a different generation. Just look at how segregated bars are according to social groups, with infringement on such environments (i.e. going to a bar you’re your crowd is not welcome at) bringing on greater isolation within those environments.
This all has a great impact not just on how we pass time and eat our meals, but also on our politics. The Scandinavian countries have a strong social democracy, and they believe that they government has a duty to help people and care for them. That’s impossible here because of strong bigotry and distrust in this country. Resentment against other racial or ethnic, groups, genders, or sexual orientations has created the gridlock we face today. One side actively yearns for Scandinavian style social democracy while the other does but can’t get over its prejudices to work for it. That is, as one might hear someone saying, “I don’t want that damned, lazy other group getting my hard earned cash for their special privileges.”
I think this all looks pretty bleak, and it may appear that there is no way forward, but there is, and it is the answer that I have mentioned quite a few times already: communication. We need active discussion between groups. We need dialogue that is not out to prove a point but to foster understanding. The bigots will always have cotton stuck in their ears, and they may always be around. But ignore them, we need to be speaking to people of all stripes, we need to seek out people who are different from us and talk to them. Get over the awkwardness, because we need to talk about real shit that matters. Talk, talk, talk. And then listen, listen, listen. It is the only thing that will save us.
I see now, how funny it all is, that the only way to end these TV dinners and sort out all these problems is to start talking to each other. How wonderfully straightforward.