Breaking bread and bridging divides

The Kantian Dinner Party Initiative brings strangers together to foster civil debate and dialogue in Milwaukee.

The table is elaborately set at Cafe Benelux before a Kantian Dinner Party held the day after the election. (Photo by Allison Dikanovic)

By Allison Dikanovic

It is the day after the election, and the table is set.

An ambience of dim lighting and the murmur of neighboring dinner conversation weaves its way in from the front of the restaurant. Nine glasses of ice water are placed around the table. Nine empty wine glasses are lined up anxiously waiting for the bottle of red to be poured. Nine sets of silverware are rolled into nine napkins, resting on nine little plates in front of exactly nine chairs.

The Cafe Benelux table cannot fit another seat, no matter how badly someone may want in on this party. Immanuel Kant was very specific about the number of guests that were appropriate for a proper dinner party, and he’s the one making the rules for this gathering.

Guests from all walks of life in Milwaukee, representing a wide breadth of ages, genders, and ethnicities, prepare for a meal unlike any they’ve had before. Eight strangers, including a psychologist, a business consultant, a social worker, an engineer and a professor each grab a seat around the table, introducing themselves to each other and to the long-haired host for the evening with small, round glasses.

The group is about to partake in a Kantian Dinner Party, following the rules of debate laid out by the 18th century philosopher. In addition to his extensive philosophical and political writings, Kant also published a series of rules necessary to carry out the perfect dinner party. He described dinner parties as, “the highest ethicophysical good,” due to their inclusion of both pleasure and virtue.

Immanuel Kant (Photo courtesy of the Creative Commons)

“I’m looking forward to what can happen in the simple action of breaking bread with a group of strangers,” one of the participants said as he got settled.

“We’re bringing philosophy into public spaces,” said Dr. Ryan Hanley, a political science professor at Marquette University, self-described advocate of public humanities and co-creator of the event. In the wake of a “contentious political culture” and “pronounced tensions in Milwaukee,” the dinner is intended to foster respectful debate and conversation among its participants.

“It’s an experiment in the truest sense of the word,” Hanley said.

Participants expressed how they were intrigued by the idea of having intelligent, civil conversation with strangers and excited about the opportunity to “learn and think about things differently.”

This is the first time anyone has ever created a public space to practice Kant’s rules in the over 200 years they have existed. In addition to the limited number of guests, other rules to create the most conducive environment for vibrant debate include having a host to maintain an inclusive flow of conversation, a vow of secrecy to build trust among guests, and an agreement to let “mutual respect and benevolence always shine forth.” The host for this evening’s dinner is Anthony Lanz, a graduate student at Marquette who has worked with Hanley in the past.

Hanley, alongside Lanz and another former student Charles Dobbs, developed the idea for the Kantian Dinner Party Initiative after they held such an event for their seminar class on Kantian Political Philosophy last semester. The class dinner party was such a success that they were inspired to try to recreate the experience for others in their wider community. Anyone could participate, as long as they had registered online and were selected from a lottery system to attend a dinner.

The servers placed plates of pita and hummus throughout the table as Lanz described the intended flow of conversation. It was to begin with local news, transition into debate, and then end with jokes and lighthearted conversation.

On this particular evening following the election, Lanz set the mood with a sobering joke.

“Tonight, it would be difficult to ignore the elephant in the room,” he said, to which one of the guests immediately responded, “Did you mean to say that?” Everyone laughed as the tension released.

The guests each introduced themselves and began to reflect on the election results, apprehensively and with great care. The restraint was tangible, as the guests seemed much more conscious of the words they chose than many may have been at their unmoderated thanksgiving tables. One admitted, “It’s still a bit difficult to talk about it for me without getting emotional.”

“There are things that scare me a lot, possibly because I’m an immigrant,” another divulged.

One described a difficult moment from his day. “I told my daughter I would be waking her up to the first female president and that she could be that,” he said.

As each person spoke, everyone else locked eyes and focused intently on the speaker, nodding and leaning in with a kind of attention and active listening that seems all but lost in the age of tantalizing iPhones. There was a communal sense of openness.

The guests welcomed and entertained a wealth of perspectives, acknowledging the presence of fear and resentment in their communities and how those sensations manifested in the polls.

“People felt attacked that their way of life was changing,” one observed.

“There are people who feel left behind economically and culturally,” another agreed.

Aligned with Kant’s rules, there was no finger-pointing.

“We all need to work on opening up about our biases, becoming aware of them,” a guest recognized.

Guests took part in a three course meal and civil debate following the rules of philosopher Immanuel Kant. (Photo by Allison Dikanovic)

As the main course of squash noodles, chicken, and bacon-wrapped meatloaf was served, conversation began to explore the idea of empathy, asking big questions such as, “Could I have helped bridge those gaps more?” and “How do we coexist with very, very different ideas of what the world should be like?”

Profound ideas arose around the dinner table. “We need a baseline of empathy to construct the kind of society we want to live in,” a guest advised. Another highlighted the ways that humans can learn and grow in times when they experience pain.

Before anyone was able to come close to answering the question of how they could better work to foster empathy in their communities, dessert was served.

The salted caramel cheesecake was a signal that according to Kant, the conversation should be lightening up. Topics easily transitioned to the best current Netflix shows.

Before Lanz wrapped things up, he explained that the organizers’ objective in creating these events was to expand and encourage people to host their own Kantian dinners in the future.

“We want more people to realize that you can disagree with somebody and not hate them,” Lanz said. “You can still see their humanity.”

The idea was well received among the guests, and they thanked Lanz for facilitating their dinner, noting how it was “healing,” and, “helped us think through issues in a productive way and helped people reflect on their ideas.”

These dinners were made possible through a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and through community partnerships between Marquette, Café Benelux and Story Hill BKC. Six dinners took place throughout October and November, and the organizers are working to plan more in the months to come.

After the dinner ended, guests lingered in the restaurant, and their conversation continued organically, some exchanging contact information.

Perhaps the work of creating the kind of empathy they discussed is much more simple than the guests realized. They were doing it all along just by pulling up a seat at the table and sharing a meal together.