Having attended Conversation Cafés and World Cafés, and more recently Coffee Party meetings as an observer and guest, a question about the purpose of conversation or what is to come thereafter, is often asked before partings ways. Here are a few variations:
Now that we’ve talked about XYZ, how are we going to move forward?
I know that talking about these issues is important, but how are we going to change things?
Whether organized or informal, the act of conversation is more than just an exchange of words, ideas, and opinions. The act of conversation is an act of free will, especially when such conversation happens in public.
Throughout history, there have been attempts to control political discourse (sometimes successfully) by regulating the places in which people can meet and the conversations they can have, for the ideas and opinions that emerge have been known to challenge the status quo from time to time.
In 1675, Charles II of England called for the suppression of all coffeehouses in London. Here is an exert from the proclamation (Ellis, Aytoun. The Penny Universities; A History of the Coffee-houses. London, Secker & Warburg, 1956.):
Whereas it is most apparent that the multitude of coffee houses of late years set up and kept within this kingdom, the dominion of Wales and the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, and the great resort of idle and disaffected persons to them, have produced very evil and dangerous effects, as well as that many tradesmen and others do therein misspend much of their time, which might and probably would otherwise be employed in and about their lawful callings and affairs, but also for that in such houses, and by occasion of the meeting of such persons therein, many false, malicious, and scandalous reports are devised and spread abroad, to the deformation of his Majesty’s government and to the disturbance of the peace and quiet of the realm, his Majesty has thought it fit and necessary that the said coffee houses be for the future put down and suppressed.
Ultimately, it was the uproar and conversations that followed that forced Charles II to cancel this edict and back down.
But what would have happened if Charles II was temporarily successful? Lloyd’s of London and the London Stock Exchange would not have emerged and flourished. If such a law passed in France when café conversations become a part of the cultural landscape, Diderot would not have been able to write the first modern encyclopedia and the French Enlightenment would not have been.
It is when the powers that be try to dominate and restrict where people can talk and what about that I get anxious for life temporarily becomes sterile, closed, and oppressive.
All forms of social ordering which seek to suppress otherness and to arrest dialogue are inevitably subject to resistance, to human freedom and transgression, and ultimately to transformation in the ongoing dialogue of forces, the continuing movement of history. – Chris Falzon, Foucault and Social Dialogue: Beyond Fragmentation
The act of conversation is an act of resistance, an act of human freedom. The act of conversation has purpose; it ensures the continuing movement of history.