Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Lost Art of Listening

You know you are living in strange times when news anchors have to give warnings about offensive language before playing clips of the President of the United States giving a speech, and when the most important issue on the national stage seems to be whether professional athletes should stand during the national anthem.

By all measures and to all indications, the United States appears more polarized and factionalized today than at any point since the 1960s and early 1970s. Our national leadership - including but not limited to the aforementioned President - seems determined to add fuel to the fire rather than finding ways to put it out. The media (social, mainstream, and otherwise) have become amplifiers that increase the volume. Everywhere people are concerned, confused, frightened, angry.

There are, as always, no simple solutions. But there is a simple diagnosis: we have forgotten how to listen to each other.

I don't mean that we've become actually deaf. But there is a vast difference between hearing the words coming from someone else's mouth, and listening. Generally, we hear others' words either as confirmation of our own views or as fodder for snarky memes and late-night talk shows that make us feel better about ourselves and superior to Those Idiots Over There.

Listening assumes basic human empathy. To listen to someone, I must first believe that they are of value, that they deserve "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" just as much as I do, that they matter. This is no small thing, because it requires us to recognize that someone else's humanity is every bit as valuable as my own. It forces us to love others as we love ourselves. We long ago sanitized Jesus' command (love your neighbor as yourself) by referring to it simplistically as "the Golden Rule", and in so doing forgot how genuinely hard this is.

We begin our lives as intensively selfish creatures. It takes time before we become aware of the existence of other humans, still more time before we come to recognize them as humans instead of moving objects in our environment. And though empathy often develops quite young, so does selfishness - the desire to Look Out for Number 1, to put ourself ahead of others.

We resolve this tension in part by forming groups, which helps us to exercise empathy and altruism towards some other people while still discriminating against and rejecting others. Tribes are, in a sense, a more complex form of selfishness. Evolutionary philosophers like Jonathan Haidt have suggested that this is as far as we can go - that selfishness is simply built into who and what we are, so we always have to have an out-group.

And yet we strive to be better. The highest ideals of nearly every society, and certainly every major religion, include some version of what we so glibly call the Golden Rule. We are reminded to show hospitality to the stranger, to care for the weak and helpless, to put the needs of others ahead of our own. The stories that unite us, the ones we all cheer for despite party or race or nationality, are the stories of heroic self-sacrifice: the firefighters rescuing people from the burning building, the fishermen who drove down to Houston with their boats to rescue people from the flooding, the neighborhoods coming together to help each other recover from the hurricane or tornado. As divided and polarized as we are, these are the stories that we all agree represent the best of us. Greater love hath no man indeed.

The lost art of listening is really just empathy put into its simplest action. If I can listen to you, not with the intent to rebut or ridicule or mock or disagree, but simply to try to understand your point of view, then I am practicing empathy. I recognize you as a fellow human being, made in God's image as I am.

Most of our current troubles derive from a lack of listening. Very few in government listen to those outside their party or their support circle. The President spends much of his time actively discouraging the practice, calling people names and denigrating those who disagree with him. We used to argue that the President is a role model for the nation. I think that's true, and our current one is modeling the problem, not the solution. Leaders in Congress and the most common voices we see in the media are little better.

We also don't listen much to each other. I've written before about "bubbles" and the problem of fear. We don't listen to each other because we're afraid of each other - afraid of being demeaned, dismissed, or even attacked (verbally or physically). Like all abilities, the less we listen, the less good we get at it. In an atmosphere where no one is listening, many people will grow up never learning the skill at all.

There are others out there making this same point, though they are often faint voices (because conflict is louder by nature, and because those who run society's megaphones make more money from noise than from quiet conversation). A conservative friend of mine sent me this one from the Weekly Standard. The author makes a lot of excellent points and hits on exactly the same problem, although parts of his article are couched in the same kind of partisan snark that makes listening so difficult. Those habits die hard, but die they must.

I've watched the bizarre conflict over the NFL mostly with sadness. Those yelling at the players, including our President (who seemed to think it important to call them profanities and demand they be fired), aren't interested in listening to what those players have to say. They don't want to hear the concerns of African American men who are trying to speak up for their brothers and sisters who can't speak up for themselves.

Likewise, those who support those protests don't always stop to listen to what the booing fans in the stands are saying. In a polarized time, symbols of identity become critically important. For some, those include the flag and the national anthem, symbols that have a nearly sacred meaning to some (even as they have a different meaning, or no meaning, to others).

To listen to others is not necessarily to agree with any of them. I can understand that for some of my fellow Americans, the flag means more to them perhaps than means to me. That's OK. I don't ask that they adopt my meaning. I can also understand that some of my fellow Americans have an experience of discrimination that I don't have, and that because of that difference they feel differently about some institutions than I do. I don't ask that they adopt my feelings either.

I don't know what the "solution" to these issues is. Race relations, protests, free speech on university campuses, immigration - there's a long list of things about which we are seriously polarized. I don't know what the solution to any of them should be. What I do know is that there is only one way to get to a solution: listening. The longer we put off really listening to each other, the more pain there will be. The sooner we start listening, the better our chances of finding solutions.

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