Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Brief Exchange at a Coffee Shop

I go into a coffee shop and set my book down on the counter to order a mocha or whatnot.  I'm currently teaching a course on the history of genocide for the University of Mantua.  A 60-year-old lady in line behind me notices the title, Century of Genocide, and makes a comment in a quizzical tone: "My, that's a heavy book."  As some of my readers might know from previous blog posts, I'm not particularly keen on strangers sidling up to me for some gratuitous small talk.  I  jealously guard my time alone.  However, I deemed this neighborly comment worthy of my attention.  I give her a wry face as I pick up the book.  "Hmmm.  About two pounds?"  She smirks.  "You know what I mean!"  As I take my receipt from the cashier and walk over to the pick-up counter, I reply in one of the many variations on Rodney King's famous words: "Can't we all just get along?"  Not missing a beat, she responds: "Yet it appears that we can't, doesn't it?"  As we're waiting for the barista to deliver up the goods, me a white chocolate mocha and her a latte with soy milk, she gives her own take on the issue of genocide.  Based upon her curiosity over such an issue and the measured thoughtfulness she wears prominently on her brow, I surmise she is either a retired school teacher or otherwise an informed citizen with a global eye. 

When it comes to the topic of genocide and human evil, the issue of nature versus nurture inevitably arises.  Since 95% of the people with whom I speak on this matter side with the "nurture" thesis, at least initially, I like to make a strong case for the "nurture" end of things.  That is to say, I suggest to her that people, or more to the point, men, kill because they are hardwired to do so, thanks in no small part to their Darwinian inheritance.  She disagrees.  It's about environment, upbringing, and culture.  "Well, you're not off the mark," I concede.  The conversation sort of peters out with the gurgling sound of the espresso machine and other patrons clamoring for their caffeine products.  I grab my mocha and sit down with my laptop on one of the nearby tables.  A few minutes later the lady comes up to me thanking me for such an interesting conversation.  I smile.  Yes, I think to myself, it's refreshing to have a short conversation between two strangers on something that actually matters in the world.