Liddick: The lost art of listening absent from our political discourse
Ryan Summerlin November 5, 2013
Can we talk?
Increasingly, the answer is “no.” Put as many exclamation points behind that as you think necessary. We have entered one of those periods in American history when appeals to reason fall on deaf ears and raw emotion rules.
One recent example of this was New York City police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s attempt to address an audience at the very liberal Brown University. Although invited to speak, Kelly was shouted off the stage by a group of students and activists who decided that New York’s “stop and frisk” policy was “racist” and therefore, no one associated with it in any way had anything worthwhile to say on any topic, to anyone.
Some participating in this example of closed-minded intolerance later tried to defend their goon-squad tactics as “free speech,” but even the New York Times didn’t buy that limp argument, saying the protesters’ understanding of what constitutes free speech “needs work.” Unfortunately this sort of thing is all too common in America today; from politically correct speech codes to ad hominem attacks and outright attempts at intimidation, we don’t listen to each other. That’s dangerous.
Self-rule necessitates argument about policies; time and example have proven this. But productive argument requires practice: one has to keep conversation focused, listen to counterpoints, respond cogently, and above all, avoid making discourse personal. “You’re an idiot” shows the user’s intellectual bankruptcy, but won’t help determine the best actions.
Political Balkanization and cultivation of suspicion benefit our political class. The founders knew this — it was one reason why they had healthy concerns about development of political parties. Parties embrace division and conflict; despite their professed love for “uniters,” they realize nothing keeps the money flowing like a good fight. But this dialectical approach can go too far and when it does there is lasting damage, particularly when a false and vicious narrative is used to promote a partisan agenda. Examples abound; all parties have these skeletons.
From where does this nastiness rise? Political leaders shoulder most of the blame. From “Read my lips — no new taxes,” through “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” to “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it,” the past twenty-odd years have seen a real parade of prevarication by presidents and others. Icy skepticism of politicians is a logical response.
Favoritism obstructs. When an administration uses the apparatus of government to punish its political enemies, it eliminates fairness, reason and a willingness to compromise. When Congress exempts itself from its own laws, or openly seeks favors for particular groups, its sense of privilege and disdain for the rest of us nourishes resentment. Are you listening, Jared Polis?
Hyperpartisanship replicates. If one forces an ideological agenda on a narrow majority, ignoring those who argue against it, one should expect an equally vigorous pushback. Call it the Third Law of Political Motion. The Tea Party is thus the natural response to Democrats’ steamrolling the opposition in 2008-10, and those who expressed surprise at its scope and power are either willfully ignorant or hypocritical.
Histrionics poison. Although emotion has been part of politics since Sumerians ruled the Earth, overblown emoting to gain political advantage does more harm than good. Call it unfair, but painting one’s opponents as child-hating grandma killers or the spawn of Satan has unpleasant repercussions, like their refusal to cooperate on even the most logical and necessary projects, or thirsting for vengeance, opportunities for which come often in politics.
There is a solution. Unsurprisingly, no one seems to be interested in moving toward it; emotional responses are easier and quicker than thoughtful ones. But our country is in difficult straights and its future, for better or worse, depends on our decisions. So it’s time to think and speak like adults.
Politicians who argue that we ought to spend more time and money caring for the disadvantaged may not be crypto-Communists out to undermine the Republic — with some notable exceptions like Bernie Sanders or Sheila Jackson-Lee. Those who argue that we can’t continue to spend the public’s money like a fleet of drunken sailors may not be knuckle-dragging troglodytes. Both may have the welfare of the country at heart; both may be sincere. But one group must be wrong; the choices facing us are stark, and mutually exclusive.
That’s why argument is a part of politics, and why trying to silence one side or the other is bad. Why ignoring facts, history and current example is bad. Why demonizing, not countering, opponents is bad. All of these rob us of chances to argue accurately about our country’s future. But it seems we will continue down this road until time choses our future for us.
Because it’s easier.
Morgan Liddick lives in Summit County.
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