Wednesday, September 26, 2012

So How Do We Speak? And Listen?

Yesterday I argued that everyone speaks from within some framework. When we engage in civic conversation in the public square, we speak on the basis of certain assumptions--religious or secular. Sometimes people will suggest that those who speak from religious assumptions should not do so, on the basis that they do not share those assumptions. But we all speak from some ground. We all assume a framework for living. So how do we speak to each other? And how can we listen?

This format--writing in a blog with limited follow-up--encourages oversimplification, and I doubt that I am able to probe the question in great depth anyway. So the suggestions that follow are simple and somewhat surface; but I offer them as a starting point.

1) When we speak, we should be open about our own stance towards life. If you speak as a Christian, say so. If you speak as a Jew, say so. If you speak as a secular person say so. Honesty is a virtue. When a candidate for the Supreme Court can say that his Christian faith will make no difference to his deliberations on the bench, I wonder what kind of self-deception he is engaging in. Who we are should inform what we think and say. So, step one: be honest about your presuppositions, your assumptions about life, your own framework for living.

2) When we listen, we should be ready to listen to those who speak from frameworks different than our own. Christians can listen to secularists. Atheists can listen to Muslims. Secular people and Theistic people should be able to hear each other.

3) When we start with different presuppositions, we will come out with different conclusions to the same data. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms makes it clear that in Canada the rights of the individual trump the rights of the community. There are community rights, but individual rights are paramount. From this basic assumption about life there flow privacy laws that make complete sense -- if the rights of individual are primary.

Many (perhaps most) societies give the primary right to something other than the individual -- to the family, or to the community (whatever that is), or to the State. Privacy laws as they exist in Canada make no sense in these societies. Different starting points lead to different conclusions, even when we have the same data.

4) We can listen to and hear different positions based on assumptions with which we disagree. We can listen respectfully and carefully, even as we continue to disagree.

5) We can learn from positions with which we disagree. We may continue to disagree, but starting from a different place in the argument allows us to see things that we do not see when we remain only in our own framework.

Applying these simple ideas to the conversation about Bill M-312, to which I referred yesterday: The proponents of the bill want to redefine human life so that a baby is legally human before birth as well as after. Those who oppose them recognize the political tactic intended to re-open the debate over abortion on demand. Accordingly they respond with vitriol and closed minds. there is a fundamentalism of secular zealots as well as of Muslims and Christians.

If they would set their own framework aside for a moment, they could perhaps hear the concern for human life that makes for a genuinely "pro-life" concern. Try to hear what the bill's proponents are saying -- don't commit to agreeing; just try to understand.

Then turn it around. Proponents of the bill can be just as vitriolic and closed-minded. Instead of accusing those who oppose the bill of being baby killers, try to hear their concerns clearly. What past actions and experiences lead people to be so afraid of the larger community telling women what they may do with their bodies? How has the larger society dehumanized women (among others)? Try to hear what the bill's opponents are saying -- don't commit to agreeing, just try to understand.

Simple steps, and incredibly difficult to carry out. Try repeating them when discussing same sex marriage. It is much easier just to decide that the person you disagree with is evil; but that approach leads to destruction. We're trying to build a country together, and we need each other far too much not to try to understand and learn from each other.

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