I’ve written many times on politics, using two basic ideas to point a way forward.
(1) We’ve all got something to learn, and
(2) We all have a stake in each other.
The one act that encompasses both “learning” and “each other” is listening.
You’d think that, given its importance, that America would be setting up new ways to listen to each other. The new technology gives us listening opportunities we could hardly imagine 50 years ago. The old technologies, especially the oldest one, of face-to-face in-person relationships, are still fully available to us should we want to use them.
But there’s the rub. When it comes to political decision-making, we’d rather not use them. We don’t really want to listen, and when we do, we seem to forget how to really do it. Our listening is selective — usually limited to stuff we’ve already decided we want to hear. When it comes to politics, even those of us who are spiritually inclined to go to great lengths to achieve mindfulness tune out other people’s politics. Even those who speak at length of how every person is made in God’s image seem just fine with blowing other people off over their politics.
The political world has trouble listening. One reason is that it loves being distracted. In this election, to most people, the real matter-at-hand is the state of the economy. Immigration and debt figure large, too. But instead, what gets most of the time on the news shows and the political ads? Birth certificates. Tax returns. Strange comments by strange legislators. Who leaks what secrets. Extreme words from talking heads and media stars. Half-truths, quarter-truths, and outright lies about the candidates’ records. Broad accusations about corporate slavery and Marxism. Even hints of violence if the other side wins. If your friend or your colleague at work kept looking away to talk to someone else, or paid more attention to the bird at the window than to you, would you think they were listening to you? When political discourse gets distracted, it cannot accomplish its main tasks.
American politics no longer has mediating activities. There’s no place where people can walk through matters with each other, with some urgency but no demand of a timetable nor of a particular pre-determined conclusion. We have to cobble together our own ad hoc substitute for gathering information. But gathering information is not the same as hearing others share their stories with us, meeting them more as people and less as members of a political faction.
One of our worst habits in political discussion is that we don’t show that we understand what’s being said. When you’re really listening, you’ll occasionally paraphrase, saying back to them what they said to see if you’ve got it right. Instead, the political world interrupts, quotes directly, wrenches it completely out of context, and shoots back with snappy rejoinders and cynical dismissal. They listen only for nuggets to latch on to for a flame-out response. The result? We can’t really understand what’s really being said.
The tameness of the US press’ questions has long been noted by political scientists. But it’s gotten so bad that when a truly incisive question is asked, it stands out almost like it’s a historic moment. US viewers of BBC (British) news love it so much because the Beeb still actually pursues questions that aren’t on the candidates’ approved list, and they’re likely to bite back when they’re being manipulated. Here, in the land of the free-for-a-small-fee, the idea of a true followup question is something out of a fictional fairy-land.
I know my own reaction when someone is clearly not listening to me. I get angry. And the more they do it, the angrier I get. And when I’m angry, I’m also no longer listening. Most of us are that way; most of the few who aren’t that way choose calmly to stop listening. It’s easy to understand why that leads to an angrier, more dismissive political world. When you don’t listen, you don’t understand. When you don’t understand, you don’t decide, you don’t act, you don’t move ahead. You get gridlock. And you get stuck in the same place while the world changes around you and time leaves you behind. Or worse: anger builds into a new, ugly civil war.
Learning how to listen may prove to be key to our nation’s future.