Benjamin Franklin invented the chat room

In 1727, when Benjamin Franklin was twenty-one, he and a few friends—among them a scribe, a carpenter, and two shoemakers—formed a conversational club called the Junto. They met on Friday night in a tavern in Philadelphia. “The rules which I laid down required each member, in turn, to produce one or more petitions on any point of morals, politics, or natural philosophy, to be discussed by the society,” Franklin wrote in his autobiography. The United States was not yet the United States, but already he sensed a civility problem. His solution: structured, secular chatter, “conducted in a sincere spirit of seeking truth, without a penchant for argument, or desire for victory.”

It was then. “I don’t think anyone, anywhere on the political spectrum, thinks our civic discourse is in good shape right now,” Asha Curran said recently, around the time a sitting president and former Vice President publicly threatened to fight. other up. Curran is the director of innovation at 92nd Street Y, which is both an Upper East Side building and a nonprofit promoting “American pluralism” and “civic participation.” She and her boss, who had recently read Franklin’s autobiography, began discussing chat clubs. “We asked, ‘What does the modern version of a Junto look like?’ said Curran. It ended up looking like BenFranklinCircles.org, a website that has a few printable conversation prompts and a video trailer. (“The concept is simple: you get a small group together to talk about big ideas.”) There are now about one hundred and fifty Ben Franklin Circles across the country – one at a homeless shelter in Detroit, one at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and culture.

A local citizen, seeking fellowship within a reasonable commute, joined a circle on the Upper West Side. It was a Wednesday night, not a Friday, but the group continued the tradition of meeting in a tavern. (Well, a “modern Mediterranean tavern,” with eight-dollar mezes and IPAs) Convening the Circle — which was actually more of a thin parallelogram, due to the restaurant’s long tables — was Klay Williams, from the Bronx, who wore a dark sports coat, an orange T-shirt and a diamond stud in each ear. He calls himself a “holistic lifestyle expert specializing in personal and professional development” – part life coach, part makeover consultant.

Each circle discussion centers on one of Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues – a list of personal attributes worth striving for, one of Franklin’s many attempts at life coaching. The theme of the evening was the second virtue: silence. “Is there a way to turn the music down a bit?” Williams asked the manager. A techno remix of Sade’s “Smooth Operator” throbbed in the background or, really, in the foreground. “I was planning to start with silent meditation,” Williams said. “But instead, I think I’m going to spark a discussion around ‘How do you get to a quiet place when you’re surrounded by distractions?’ ”

The participants have arrived: a freelance writer in her fifties; an opera singer, college administrator, and church fundraiser, all in their 40s; a woman who was about to leave management consulting to become a midwife; and Williams’ boyfriend, a college science teacher.

“We’re clearly in a noisy place, but just quickly close your eyes and ask yourself what silence means to you,” Williams said.

The admin began, “I hate to start with the negative…”

“Live your best life,” Williams said.

“Well, we’re in this moment of #MeToo, where it’s about exercising free speech and exorcising demons, so when I thought about silence, it brought up some negative connotations.”

“I had the opposite thought,” the editor said. “I went to introspection, to peace, stopping to hear the world around me.”

“There is a yin and a yang,” the opera singer said.

“A what?” says the editor.

“A yin and one yang“, shouted the singer.

The women discussed the #MeToo movement, and the men at the table remained silent. When the manager came by, Williams asked him, again, to turn the music down. “It’s already done, darling,” she said. (Presumably she had not been told of Franklin’s seventh virtue, sincerity.)

The group ordered dinner. The consultant, who is Haitian-American, the administrator, who is Chinese-American, and the fundraiser, who is African-American, wondered if Bruno Mars’ music was a form of cultural appropriation. “Let’s go back to our lived experience,” Williams said. “In what ways have you felt silenced? »

“Quiet?” asked the singer.

“Yes-wronged“Williams said. “ED.”

“What scared me, after the 2016 election, was how many people – silent – ​​supported this guy,” the fundraiser said. “Just, like, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to say a word about it, but I agree with him.’ It made me reconsider a lot of things.

“So true,” Williams said. He turned to his boyfriend and asked, “Can you expand on that?”

He couldn’t, his mouth was full of Brussels sprouts.

“OK,” Williams said with a laugh. “You have the right to remain silent.” ♦

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