Yeah, I know, we all need to learn to listen better. And I promise, this isn’t a patronizing homily-filled preachy post. It’s actually about two aha! moments that happened to me today. They may not be news to you, but to me, an incurably slow learner, they hit me like a ton of bricks.
The first of these came when I watched YouTube vlogbrother Hank Green’s regular weekly four-minute (Friday) post ostensibly directed to his brother John, who lives across the country from him.
The message was straightforward: We think we listen well, but often our presuppositions, biases, judgements, beliefs/worldviews, predispositions, and expectations get in the way of really listening. And especially if we’re in the role of key decision-maker (eg politician or organizational ‘leader’), there’s a temptation to rush to judgement, or not to really listen to people we know we don’t agree with us, and instead surround ourselves with like-minded people (especially rich and powerful ones, for those who are politicians) who will make our decisions fast and easy.
Hank talks about a recently-deceased local mayor with whom he often disagreed, but always respected because of his willingness to invite people with radically different perspectives and beliefs to talk with him, and his capacity to truly listen, even though he knew that would make his decision harder. I have known lots of people in municipal leadership roles, and their jobs are awful and usually thankless. The ones I most respect, across the political spectrum, are the good listeners. And the good listeners, almost without exception, are the ones who are consciously aware of their own biases, and who don’t take the (often emotional) arguments they listen to personally — instead they listen to understand and appreciate where the speaker is coming from, both intellectually and emotionally.
I realized that, being both conflict-averse and reasonably informed on most issues (and also easily stirred up into an anxious state), my propensity is to listen principally to coherent voices that confirm my beliefs, and only check out one or two sources that conflict with them. My argument is that if I spent enough time to really understand the often incoherent and vexatious arguments that run contrary to my worldview, I would have no time for anything else, including critical thinking. But that argument is not true: When I do allow time to understand arguments I initially find outrageous or ludicrous (and sometimes deliberately provocative, overstated and unhelpful), I almost invariably learn something valuable about why they believe what they do (and it’s not because they’re dumb, evil, or cluelessly taken in by propaganda and misinformation).
Despite the fact that ‘pay attention and listen’ is part of the mantra that sits just below my laptop keyboard, I am still, too often, prone to do neither. When I do actually slow down and really listen, I am always reminded that We’re all doing our best, that We’re conditioned to do what we do (and hence it’s useful to understand how and where that conditioning arose), and that No one is to blame for the atrocities and blunders that define much of what is going on in the world, and especially in the news. And often, it’s the emotion behind what is said (often fear, anxiety, or grief) that is most important to ‘listen’ to and understand, than the argument itself.
Hank’s video also reminded me of the importance of really listening to ourselves. As a conditioned creature, I don’t believe I have any choice in what I believe or what I do. But he made me realize that I’m often not even aware that what I am doing is entirely inconsistent with what I believe. It takes a certain innate curiosity and effort to become self-aware enough to recognize and think about the cognitive dissonance that that inconsistency between belief and action brings up.
So this morning I had been lamenting the fact that there are three groups that I am a pivotal member of, which, despite my deep appreciation of most of their members and the work they do, simply are no longer enjoyable to me. So why was I still doing them?
I should have gotten a clue from the colour coding I use in my Google Calendar. I use one colour for events and activities that I love, and a different colour for those that I consider “important duties” (mostly volunteer work). When I thought about it, I discovered that the work I do for these three groups, events that used to be labelled as “activities I love”, have gradually become labelled instead as “important duties”. Yet still, I was investing a lot of time doing them. Why?
I realized that at one point, I really cared about the work these organizations were doing, and got great joy co-organizing activities with their members. But now I was doing this out of duty. I had no idea why what they were now doing was uninteresting to me, because I had simply stopped listening to their members. And I was still doing this because I had stopped listening to my own inner voice saying Why are you still doing this when you don’t enjoy it?
So today I made what for me is a momentous decision, one I should have made long ago: I am withdrawing from two of these groups entirely, and ratcheting back what I am doing for a third group to just the routine activities I actually enjoy. When I decided this, I felt an enormous sense of relief and liberation. And I reflected about why this had been so hard, which really comes back to my conditioning and my lack of listening and self-attentiveness. And the realization that my ‘belonging’ to these groups had become part of my identity. What will fill the vacuum? I have no idea.
That was my first aha! of the day.
Then a couple of hours later I was reading the latest New Yorker magazine, specifically a gruelling article about how religious-right Republicans have used gerrymandering in Ohio to achieve a permanent, guaranteed veto-proof 60% super-majority in the state legislature despite having only about 35-40% of the popular vote. They have introduced the most extreme anti-abortion (allowing no exceptions whatsoever) and extreme pro-gun (no restrictions on open carry even of automatic weapons, even without a permit, even in schools) in the US and perhaps in the world, and they’re gleefully saying that they always win no matter what the majority wants (which is, overwhelmingly, less restrictions on abortion and much stricter gun control).
My initial reaction was, of course, outrage. But as I read, I ‘listened’ to the quotes the author provided from the Ohio Republicans. And their essential message was: Fuck democracy — the will of God (as they understand it) completely outweighs the will of the voters. Might makes right. The end justifies the means. The reason the majority doesn’t agree with us is because they’re immoral foolish sinners, and their opinions don’t count. Disenfranchising them just makes sense.
Well, duh! How was it I only just figured this out? My worldview could not accept the fact that those currently engineering a Christian Fascist takeover of the nation don’t care whether what they’re doing is democratic, fair, or popular. To them, it’s moral, and that’s all that counts.
And I realized that this is the thinking and feeling (mostly the latter) that underlies just about every brutal totalitarian regime that gets into power, whether that be the Nazis, the Stalinists, the McCarthyists, the Maoists, the Taliban, the Wall Street Corporatists, or the current Republican Christian Fascists. The only difference between any of them is the particular brand of moral absolutism they adhere to. They don’t want to do ‘evil’, they want to do what they believe passionately is right, even if the majority are opposed to it.
How, as a reasonably intelligent, informed, well-read, critical thinking individual, could I have lived this long and not realized that? How could I not have understood that pointing out the unfairness or anti-democratic nature of their regimes and plans was, to them, entirely beside the point? How could I not have understood that they have used weaknesses in “the system” to get what they want, and feel no remorse, only joy, for having successfully done so? And that, having irreparably broken the system, they have left us, the majority, with no recourse but to smash the system, no recourse but revolution, which few of us have the stomach for, at least until the brutality becomes too unbearable?
My instincts have long told me that “the system” cannot be reformed, but I thought that was because of inertia, the sheer clunky enormity of it. Now I see that the reason it cannot be reformed is because it’s been deliberately exploited (broken) to be dysfunctional and then to be unchangeable. That’s true of our political system, our economic system, our educational system, our health care system, and all the rest. The people who benefit from its dysfunction don’t want it fixed, and have rigged it to be permanently broken. Because they think that’s the right, moral, end-justifies-the-means thing to do.
The only way out now is to blow it up or wait for it to collapse. Until then it will not serve the vast majority of us, if it was ever intended to. Just thinking about what would be needed to “blow it up” — to scrap the existing systems entirely and create fair, democratic and just ones from scratch, against the wishes of those who have deliberately broken them, makes my head hurt. But that’s what it’s going to take.
That was my second aha! Like the first, it was about listening, impersonally, and in a self-aware manner — but not in order to necessarily appreciate or agree with the arguments of people with whom I disagree, but rather to appreciate and understand why they believe, and act, as they do. Those reasons are usually emotional, not rational, and stem from fear (and its mask, anger), anxiety, shame and grief. We are all damaged by civilization culture, and are all healing, the best ways we can.
image above from Group Works
Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for talking this through with me.