We all love to get a pat on the back, to feel understood and corroborated. It feels good to be right, to win, to have compatriots in the fight, whatever that fight might be. I love a good confirmation as much as the next guy. Who doesn’t? As a result, though, we’ve become a nation filled with citizens who, every single day, wall themselves into our own little fortress, brick on brick of nods and yeses till we’ve built such a formidable barricade that no new idea could ever get through, happy in our self-congratulatory bliss.
And it’s killing us as a nation. We fight like old married people. We don’t listen anymore. We don’t care anymore. We believe we’re right and they’re wrong and that wall is there to protect us from the nonsense and horrific bad taste and immorality of “the other guys” on the other side.
It’s disgusting, frankly, that we have stooped to such disrespect. And no, I don’t mean mouthy teenager disrespect. I’m talking about the uncle who thinks black people are the cause of all our problems but has never actually known a black man. I’m talking about the atheist who hates Christians because the only ones he’s ever heard about are from Westboro Baptist Church. I’m talking about guy I went to high school with who posts anti-Muslim sentiments every day because the Boston bomber was Muslim. This kind of deaf world reeks with disrespect.
I teach college writing, and I tell my students that their arguments are weak, flimsy puffs of wasted air if they haven’t investigated all facets of an issue. I had a student research euthanasia, for example, and all his sources were from Catholic-affiliated publications. He even quoted the Pope. This would be fine, of course, if he had also read several non-religious publications and then made his argument, but he purposely found only those sources that supported his opinion. He felt he’d found excellent reasons against euthanasia, cited all his sources, and made some good points. I listened to him and his ideas. But he hadn’t listened to anyone else’s.
The abortion issue depicts the extreme of this closed ear syndrome we’ve taken on. Just the terms used to label the “sides” of the issue–pro-life and pro-choice–make it clear. Has anyone who has a stake in this issue ever taken the time to realize that “pro-life” advocates are not (necessarily) “anti-choice” or that “pro-choice” advocates are not “anti-life”? If the terms were simply “pro-abortion” and “anti-abortion” it would make us a little less divided, but even then we insist that this issue is two sided, there is no middle ground, and we must fight, fight, fight.
Last week in Texas we all witnessed the epitome of this deafness when the Texas court tried to tighten laws for abortion clinics. Such a hoopla! I watched some of the day’s proceedings, and all I witnessed was lots and lots of talking but not a single person listening. No one listened to anyone else. At all. Lots of loud, angry, words on both sides fell on nothing but deaf ears.
If we could learn to listen, open our ears and minds and practice some empathy, realize we can be too biased, and stop painting issues–and people–as them and us, right and wrong, then we may move toward a kinder, gentler society, one that strives to care for one another rather than strives to tear one another apart. Our relationships would be better off, too.
But we’re afraid. It’s hard to be open to new perspectives and admit we’re biased. It’s distasteful to watch the 700 Club when we’re used to MSNBC, and when we do, we have our dukes up, feathers ruffled, ready to defend ourselves and our rightness.
If we always need to be right, we can simply never listen to anyone who thinks differently, who has differing opinions, and stay tightly tucked in our thick brick walls. No one will bother us or challenge us, and we can live snuggly in our biased oblivion. After all, we’re not all extremists like Al Qaeda or the Ku Klux Klan, so we feel we’re good people as long as we don’t get silly. We don’t fly planes into towers. We don’t lynch people. We’re good people with good hearts. We just want what’s right. What we don’t realize is that the “other guys” are mostly good people who want what’s right as well. We’re actually on the same side.
On election day of 2012, as the results were coming in, I was watching CBS news for the election coverage, and one of the reporters asked both Mitt Romney and President Obama the same question, how they felt about the divisiveness in our nation. Frankly, I don’t remember Romney’s answer (apparently it was unimpressive). But our President’s answer was poignant: he said that we really weren’t as divided as we might think, that we all cared about having good schools and safe streets and a peaceful world (I’m clearly paraphrasing here). We just had different ideas about how to accomplish these things, and that’s okay. It helps us make better decisions.
Our country is built on the idea that no single ideology is automatically right, that everyone needs a say, and that we as a people determine the rules. But this can’t work if no one is listening, if we live our lives ear-muffed and walled in. We can only make good decisions if we listen to one another, if we consider all the possibilities with genuine interest before deciding a course of action–and even then admit we might be wrong. Only then will our nation be the United States of America.