Thursday, September 27, 2012

Keep on Listening. Keep on Speaking.

Part 3. I'm trying to lay out some basic ideas about how to listen and speak in civic conversations about issues that polarize Americans and Canadians. I don't want to tackle the issues directly, but to see if there is some basic way that we might speak with each other to find a path forward in contentious areas.

So far I have argued that many of our differences come from the assumptions about life with which we approach the discussion. Some people say that only secular assumptions are permissible, but I have argued that people who are religious and those who say they are non-religious both argue from their own fundamental framework. Honesty suggests that we state what we believe up front, and courtesy suggests that we listen respectfully to those with whom we disagree. But are honesty and courtesy enough? Thus part 3.

In the present situation, when someone makes their case we tend to listen only long enough to discover whether he/she is supporting our beliefs. The comments that appear under news stories online show how little anyone is listening -- respectfully or otherwise. Is there an alternative?

I suggest that we listen with at least one purpose and on the basis of at least one assumption. 1) We assume that the other intends something good. When Republicans look for ways to cut the budget, we do not assume that their intention is to hurt poor people. When Democrats look for ways to help the unemployed, we do not assume that their intention is to hurt the wealthy. When those who call themselves pro-life oppose abortion on demand, we do not assume that their intention is to control women. When those who call themselves pro-choice support abortion on demand, we do not assume that their intention is to kill babies.

2) Our purpose? To discover what the other's best intentions are. We do not need to agree. We may hold that their actions will contradict their intentions. But our first step is to hear the other clearly.

Of course, when we engage in these conversations we want to convince other people that we are right. Does this approach mean that we just talk at each other and take notes to pass a test later? Can we still argue and debate and seek to persuade?

Of course we can. Indeed, we should. But it does mean that we argue civilly; we present our case respectfully; we recognize that we can be wrong; we seek to learn as well as to convince.

Perhaps we could take one simple step. Whenever a politician or other public figure presents their case, we can ask him/her: "Are you willing to compromise?" If they say, "No. I will stand on principle," we can let them know we will not support them. Those whose principles lead them to be inflexible and unable to listen cannot lead a country comprised of different and disagreeing groups of people.


sambal said...

well said Daryl - good principles to converse by...

Anonymous said...

But aren't there some issues that require standing on principles rather than compromising? If we vote for someone who is willing to compromise are we voting for anything?

Climenheise said...

There are times to stand on principle and times to compromise. Even the principle of compromising can compromise! The trouble today is that compromise has become a dirty word, with the result that we belittle our opponents in destructive ways.

A few examples of our unbending adherence to principle:
1) Guns. Some Americans label any form of gun control, however reasonable, as a betrayal of the Constitution. I would rather see opponents of gun control listen carefully to what those favouring gun control say, and incorporate the learning into their own position.
2) Abortion. Some Americans (and Canadians) label any effort to place controls on abortion as an effort to destroy the lives of women. Thus they refuse to consider even a limitation on waht has been called "partial birth abortion". I would rather that they listen to pro-life proponents and learn from them. They may remain pro-choice, but at least listen and seek a middle ground.
3) "Gay marriage". proponents of gay marriage label any opposition as hate speech and homophobia. Try listening to proponents of traditional marriage and learn from their best inentions, rather than equating them with bullies who beat up a gay classmate.
4) Gay marraige again. Proponents of traditional marriage label any support for gay marriage as trying to destroy the family. Try hearing the concern for the civil rights of gays and lesbians, and incorporate those concerns into one's understanding of marriage and family.

This last example illustrates the problem. If you start with a worldview in which the individual is the basic unit of society, then I see no reason to oppose same sex unions as marriage. If you start with a worldview in which the family is the basic unit of society, then the traditional family (built on a stable couple who can have children and perpetuate the family) makes sense. Each worldview has some strengths and some weaknesses. Each can learn from the other about its own blind spots. That's what I want to happen.

Climenheise said...

A further thought.

My argument in the blogs is that we can hold to our principles and seek to persuade the other that we have the right principles. But such persuasion includes being open to the other and learning from him/her as well.

Developing this idea further needs another blog!