“What advantage has the person who will not listen over the one who cannot hear?” (Joyce Rachelle)
Most of the people I know—including myself—consider themselves to be open-minded, fair, and objective. But how true is that . . . really? I fear that for many of us, those sterling qualities have fallen victim to our times.
A new friend recently sent me a link to this clip of Republican strategist Frank Luntz being interviewed by historian Walter Isaacson on Christiane Amanpour’s news show, Amanpour & Co. My friend said it was a fascinating discussion of our current state of toxic politics.
Republican strategist? I asked myself if I really want to listen to a Republican strategist? Was he likely to say anything that wouldn’t piss me off? Aren’t I already pissed off enough? So much for open-mindedness.
But I respect this new friend’s opinion, so I clicked the link and soon was fascinated by a discussion devoid of shouting and name-calling, and offering plenty to ponder. While I disagreed with some of his points, I concurred with others, and some invite still more thought. Luntz, as it turned out, voiced many of my own concerns—often doing so with an articulate understanding that I lack (when I get very frustrated, I tend to sputter—I’m sputtering a lot these days).
He admitted the sad fact that he is beginning to give up hope of a united America, but instead sees our polarization growing wider and deeper. He notes that “We speak to be heard rather than speaking to learn, or listening to learn.”
And: “We now get our news to affirm us rather than to inform us.” The more polarized our media, the more polarized our populace will be, resulting in ever-growing dehumanization, demonization, and denunciation of one another. It isn’t pretty.
All of this raises a painful question that needs to be asked: Given our extreme polarization, our unwillingness to compromise or even listen to opposing views, has the United States of America joined other formerly powerful countries whose time at the top has come to an end? Have we reached our “pull by” date?
Like France and the once powerful Portugal, will we become mostly irrelevant on the world stage? We, in America, have lived all our lives in a country that dominated economically, technologically, and—often—morally. But American dominance is not our birthright and neither is it guaranteed. We have certainly relinquished any semblance of moral leadership in recent months, and our economic and technological leadership may not be far behind as those in power deny science and continue to widen the chasm between the haves and have-nots.
This brings me to a troubling question raised by the interview. While there is certainly a need for us to listen to one another, to try to understand our differences and find some common values to use as a basis for cooperation, what is our responsibility when faced with out-and-out prejudice or ignorance? Must our tent be so large that it welcomes the bigots, the liars, and the cheats? Where is the line between disagreement and deliberate evil? I keep returning to a lecture I attended many months ago by Professor David Smith of the University of Washington. He presented the best discussion of civil discourse that I have heard. I summarized it in a blog post early in 2018.
With regard to that troubling question of whether we must include everyone in our tent, Smith said that not everyone is a candidate for civil discourse. Further, it’s okay to exclude from serious discourse those who are clearly outside the boundaries of reasonableness, such as “flat-Earthers” and Holocaust deniers or defenders. People who are this committed to unquestionably false views are not going to change their minds or engage rationally; they are fueled by our disagreement. “Don’t waste your time,” he said.
This, of course, raises the currently unanswerable question of how can we ignore those who are outside the bounds of reasonableness if we keep electing them—and their accomplices—to our highest offices.
There are no easy answers, but perhaps if we continue grappling with the questions, we will grasp enough threads to mend our disintegrating nation.
The interview with Frank Luntz ends on a note of wobbly optimism: “Our only hope is that we teach children to love, not hate, that we teach them not tolerance, because that’s the lowest level, but that we teach them respect, and civility, and decency, and that we do it not just in America, but on a global scale.”
This resonated deeply with me, as recent events and conversations have convinced me that 1) children and teens have a huge capacity for kindness—if only we allow it to grow instead of stifling it; and 2) teaching hate and prejudice to our children is an insidious form of child abuse and cannot be ignored or accepted any longer.
Luntz leaves us with this challenge, “If we can wring out this hate in that generation, this world survives and America prospers.”
Are we up to it? What happens if we’re not?
“No one is born hating another person…People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” (Nelson Mandela)