My Public Square Nightmare
A few days ago I walked down to our local shops for a few supplies. Coffee, eggs, and some fresh flowers. Nothing major.
As I approached the center of our little village area, I noticed a large group of folks gathered around a single person. It was a woman standing up on one of the rock walls that circled the fountain.
“What’s going on?” I asked a straggler who stood at the back of the massive gathering sipping a tall skinny no-whip soy mocha.
“Huh? Oh, That’s Elise. She’s just up there talking.”
“Elise? Name sounds familiar. What is she talking about?”
“Don’t know. She does this once a week. Usually on Tuesday mornings."
“Why Tuesday mornings?”
“Well, I’m assuming because that’s during the farmers market time, so there’s a ton of people down here.”
“What was she talking about, again?”
“I said, I’m not sure.” He retorted.
“Does anyone know?”
“Then why are so many people standing here listening?”
“Well, she’s pretty entertaining. I just like to come over here and see what she might say. She’s got these ideas.”
“So most people here are listening because it’s like ‘A Tuesday Thing’ to go hear what Elise is going to say?”
“Ha, well when you put it that way … yeah.”
"What’s that person doing?”
As I asked, a man walked up to a large box just off to the right from where Elise was standing.
The box read, “Comments.”
“Oh, he’s leaving her a comment on her talk.”
“Who is he?”
“Just a guy. This is when it gets interesting.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Elise is almost done. Then, she’ll just stand there as folks walk up to her Comment Box. They’ll write down a comment about her talk, read it aloud to the crowd, and throw it in the box, and walk away.”
“Sounds like chaos.”
“Yeah, it’s crazy. Most times it’s the same folks who toss comments into the box. And it gets colorful. Real colorful.”
“You mean, like, arguments.”
“Oh yeah. Some will fawn all over Elise. And she’ll stand there and give them high-fives as they walk past. But others leave hard core critiques. Sometimes Elise will actually boo them as their commenting. When she does, many of the comment people will boo too.”
“That can’t be real. That happens?”
“Oh, trust me. There was an actual fight here last week. People got into it and were screaming for the authorities to lock away one commenter.”
“Because he shared a dissenting view. That's what they call folks who hold different views: Dissenter. And he did it with, well, he wasn’t very eloquent. Not like Elise. They took him away. It was pretty violent. I was shocked.”
“Did you say something about the violence?”
“Of course not. I’m just here to listen. I don’t get involved. I like the spectacle of it all.”
“You come down here every Tuesday during market? Don’t you work somewhere?”
“Yeah, my boss thinks I’m working. But you know … it’s Elise. And besides, whaddyou care?”
“Right. And why is she popular again?”
“Well, this. She does this every Tuesday. And, a few months ago she gave this talk that was, like, wow. I mean everyone in town was talking about it. Made her kinda famous.”
“Oh, wow. I thought she might have done something special, like government service. Or worked with an NGO, or something.”
“No, no, nothing like that. She just shows up here on Tuesday’s and spouts off. It’s so great.”
Then I looked to my right and noticed another, smaller gathering had begun.
“Oh, wow. Another little gathering. I wonder what that’s about.”
“Oh, that’s Sam. He always sets up shop when Elise is near done. He basically parrots most of what Elise says, and puts his own little spin on it.”
“Don’t people know he’s ripping off her stuff?”
“Yeah, but they get into such a frenzy, they don’t care. There’ll be a big to-do over at Sam’s wall, I’m sure. He’s even more intense.”
“Wow, I had no idea …”
“Oh, soon there will be several more little gatherings all doing the same thing. They feed off each other. You should hangout and watch.”
“Even more? And they all do the comment thing?”
“Of course. Hey look, the mayor’s going up to speak with Elise.”
As we stood chatting, our mayor made an appearance. He brought his entourage with him; a few smartly dressed men and women with their hair slicked back and black sunglasses on. They all had little rectangle objects in their hands, and kept putting them to their ears, and making wild gestures, and then they’d tap on the rectangles in a frenzied way that made me feel very uncomfortable.”
“It looks like Elise is going to let him speak from her wall.”
“Her wall? I thought that was the wall of the town square fountain. Kids throw wishing coins in there.”
“Well, everyone refers to it as Elise’s wall. But I think they know it’s the town's wall.”
Then, the mayor spoke up.
“I’d like to thank Elise for her brave work her on the fountain wall. Her words touch us all. And I’m proud to say that we in the Mayor’s office stand convinced we should enact a new law in accord with Elise’s infectious talk last Tuesday about what it means to be a person in our town. It’s a game changer.”
The mayor kept going, to the praise of many. People began rushing up to the Comment Box, writing down their comments and shouting them over top of each other. It was mass chaos.
Meanwhile, more little groups sprung up just as my new acquaintance predicted. Individuals were shouting from their little walls, while audiences laughed, and yelled, and pushed one another.
In one group I watched as a young man, no more than twenty-five, shouted down an old man.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about," he shouted. “Your views are so outdated. Like you. Don’t you know we need more compassion and less people like you throwing around your dissenting views. Why don’t you get out of here!”
I stood and watched, in horror. It was as if the man, standing right in front of him was not a person at all. Just a thing.
“What’s that," I asked my fellow bystander. People now stood on walls all over the place. They weren’t giving long talks. They were just yelling short sentences into the crowd. It looked like hundreds of people.
Some of their sentences made no sense. Some of them praised Elise and Sam for their brave views and willingness to stand on a wall and voice their opinion. Some yelled at Elise and Sam—dissenters I suppose. They were promptly removed.
“Did someone, some time long ago, ask Elise to come share her thoughts like this?”
“Then why does she do it?”
“Because she can, I guess. I mean, what’s it to you?”
“Well, this is a public place. And I have rights here too. I’m just …”
“You might not want to share those views too loudly. You’ll get pegged.”
“You’ll be named. And once they single you out and name you, well good luck getting anyone to hear you.”
“But why would I want someone to hear me. I’m just here to get some things for dinner.”
Just then a young woman showed up right in front of me. She was holding a book.
“Get your free copy of Elise’s new book. All you have to do is leave a comment in the Comment Box, and tell the crowd what you think. It’s a one time offer. Be part of the new revolution and join millions of people who’ve been touched by Elise’s words.”
“What? I don’t … she has a book? When did she write it.”
“Get your free copy of Elise’s new book. All you have to do is …”
“Sorry, I don’t want a copy of the book, thanks.”
Someone must have heard me decline the offer from the girl who kept repeating it over and over in my face, because she interrupted as the girl kept on with her schpeal.
“Why don’t you want Elise’s book. Everyone’s buying a copy. Don’t you support her message? It’s so beautiful. It’s life changing.”
“Well, I’m not sure I want to spend $24.99 on a book just because all these people are shouting their comments of praise about it. What’s it about?”
“It’s her story! You must not like her message. Are you judging her? You don't even know her!
"No, but that's ... Are you a Dissenter?”
“What? No, I just want to …”
“Dissenter! Dissenter! I found one!”
The woman began to lose control and screamed at the top of her lungs, “Dissenter, Dissenter, Dissenter!’
Then, a horde of folks gathered around me, shouting their little sentences at me. And throwing bits of paper comments at me.
One man in the crowd rammed into me, and punched me in the stomach. I doubled over in pain.
When I looked up I noticed my new acquaintance standing behind the horde slowly sipping his tall skinny no-whip soy mocha.
He now held a little rectangle up to his ear. A wry smile crossed his lips as he sipped and watched the horde beat me.
“Dissenter!” they screamed.
He took another sip.
“No compassion!” they yelled.
"I told you," he shouted over their screams. "You should've just stayed quiet."
And they hit me over and over again, until, I blacked out.
When I woke, I was in my bed, at home. I took a cautious look around. Nobody. Just my wife, sleeping soundly.
My Fitbit silently vibrated an alarm. 6:00am.
My wife stirred and, seeing me awake, said, "Good morning."
I caressed her forehead, and her eyes got big. "I forgot to tell you; you've got to read this new post I saw on Facebook.
Uh, no thanks. I think I'll pass.