Let’s Talk More: Austin’s Ben Franklin Circle finds that temperance isn’t as outdated as it sounds

There has been a lot of hand-wringing over whether or not Americans can still talk to each other. Online or off, political discussions are rarely civil. I knew Ben Franklin Circles sounded like a good idea, but I still didn’t know what to expect from our first meeting.

The Reading Room from the series “Grand Opening of New Central Library” by Austin Public Library

We met at Austin’s new Central Library. We were a small group of three women and two men. It was a quiet group too. Everyone seemed concerned to be courteous but also a little reluctant to talk. In many ways, this met my expectations.

Who goes to a public meeting to talk about virtue?

Small, quiet and slow-moving, this old-school exercise in civic engagement challenged my own thinking more than I could have guessed.

I am excited to be a part of bringing this project to Austin. Ben Franklin Circles, supported by Citizen University, Hoover Institution and 92Y, are designed to “foster civic participation, open dialogue and ethics-based leadership.” Ben Franklin hosted his first “junto” for mutual improvement in 1727. Seeking to include individuals with diverse skills and interests, Franklin required only a “shared spirit of inquiry and a desire for mutual improvement.” If today’s Ben Franklin Circles were going to follow that model, I knew Austin had to be part of the effort. Austin even had the perfect location for meetings, a new public building with outstanding spaces for conversation.

Our first meeting focused on temperance, one of the thirteen virtues originally identified by Franklin himself. With the first month of the year behind us, we all had friends who had spent thirty days avoiding alcohol or sweets, curbing discretionary spending or trying to maintain a new fitness plan. Keeping it simple for the first meeting made sense but I worried that the conversation would run out of steam too fast. I also suspected that I would struggle to stay interested in discussing temperance for a full hour!

On the first Thursday of February, our small quiet group met in the large silent reading room at Central Library. We started the discussion with Franklin’s words on temperance:

“Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”
Photo by Quentin Dr on Unsplash

First, we identified all those moments marked by this kind of excessive eating and drinking — tailgating, holiday parties on the company’s tab and celebrations like bachelor or bachelorette parties. Then we considered the vocabulary we use today to promote temperance. While the easy answers included phrases like “Just Say No,” one group member suggested that temperance motivates our awareness campaigns. We thought through public appeals to get regular checkups, to eat more veggies or to have a designated driver for the night. While our first take on these messages might be about safety or being healthy, they also make it possible to start talking about how to moderate excess.

We concluded that today’s public conversation about temperance is more likely to tell you what healthy habits can do for you than it is to beat you down over bad habits. Temperance does not require denying yourself anything. You practice temperance when you decide to pursue healthy outcomes.

At the individual level, practicing temperance today happens through making choices like these…

If I resist the temptation to scroll endlessly on Facebook, I’ll have time to get deeper into a book I’m really enjoying…
If I avoid weeknight happy hours, it will be easier to wake up in the morning and get to the gym…
If I eat clean all week, that birthday cake on Sunday is going to be soooooo good! And, a little of it will go a long way!

This approach to practicing temperance today means that excess is not an inexorable part of modern life. It’s not our devices. It’s us. We could decide to turn that long list of digital age maladies around if we shifted our calculations and found more value in spending time offline.

Sarah Palin on the Soda Tax (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

We even discussed how to use this understanding to turn around Mayor Bloomberg’s “soda tax.” Could public policy focus on rewarding healthy behavior instead of punishing (and benefitting from) bad habits? One member pointed out that this is precisely what some insurance companies are doing now, focusing on prevention first by offering incentives for healthy habits.

Not surprisingly, the conversation ended before we mapped out a specific policy proposal. I did, however, leave that night feeling surprised and even hopeful. The seemingly simple discussion of temperance as a practice of denying one’s indulgences quickly gave way to a more complex understanding of the choices we make and the benefits we seek. One participant refused to discuss temperance as denial, he encouraged the group to “focus on the benefits of making the better choice.”

I made a little time for open dialogue that night. In return, my fellow citizens helped me see how temperance influences public life in more subtle ways than issuing a list that starts with “Thou shall not…”

I left that night more convinced than ever that we have to find ways to talk to one another more. Public efforts like Ben Franklin Circles can help us see that we still have shared values buried under the partisan vitriol. It’s up to us to create opportunities for those values to guide our conversations.

If I attend a Ben Franklin Circle this week, I will have less time for partisan cable news and I will leave with a renewed faith in our capacity to work together….

Austin’s Ben Franklin Circle meets on the first Thursday of each month, from 6:30 to 8:00pm at Central Library. Check their calendar here.