My word of the year is listen.
It’s one of those words whose meaning is in its music. Listen is a quiet word, that half swallowed L and diffident I and softly hissing S. It defies the clamorous words it absorbs, the words that have defined this year, the shouts and roars, the bray and bluster. Listening is hard when the sounds around us grow mean and ugly.
And listening takes particular courage in divisive times. Voters in the midterm elections were united around almost nothing other than how divided we are; 76 percent say we are coming apart, versus 9 percent who see us coming together. As we separate, we shout to be heard across the divide, which grows tiresome, and so we just stop talking to each other altogether.
Listening becomes a form of subversion, a rebellion against the tribe. And so we refuse. We’ve seen this on campus, when college students shout down speakers whose views they reject. We saw it when New Yorker editor David Remnick could no longer justify interviewing Steve Bannon onstage at the magazine’s festival as other speakers threatened to pull out and sink the whole event.
Even in more intimate settings, hostility to the very act of listening grows. Fifteen years ago, Dave Isay founded StoryCorps, the oral history project that records and archives people’s narratives at the Library of Congress. It is now the largest collection of human voices ever gathered. This national treasure, with close to half a million people taking part, won its founder a MacArthur “genius” grant, resulted in a TED Talk, and earned him multiple Peabody Awards. Its goal: “to remind one another of our shared humanity… and to teach the value of listening.”
This fall, Isay launched a new initiative, One Small Step. Instead of recording the conversations of families and friends, it captures an encounter between strangers from opposite sides of the political divide. The mission this time was “to remind us that we have more in common than divides us and that treating those with whom we disagree with decency and respect is essential to a functioning democracy.”
What works in the recording booth—human moments of discovery and depth—may inspire some people but infuriate others. It’s as though, Isay tells me, some people can only hear voices they disagree with through the prism of contempt. “There is no common ground between fascism and democracy,” argued one critic of a conversation that aired on NPR. Another listener said they rejected the “gaslighting. I refuse to be friends with someone who is content, complacent, ignorant, or who rationalizes the intentional cruelty that the Republican Party champions.”
Even as I write “listener,” I stop short. Social scientists who study how our beliefs are formed find that in politically freighted conversations, we may keep listening but stop hearing once our settled views are challenged, our alarms tripped. Just giving people more information, whether about climate change or crime rates or vaccines, does not pave a road to common ground; if anything, the opposite is true. Partisanship disrupts understanding, blocks reasoning, exalts loyalty over logic.
All of which makes listening even harder. And more essential. What an insidious trap, when experts ask that we trust their finding about the failures of our critical faculties. It’s just all around so much more comfortable to be right all the time and leave it at that.
Except we risk growing dumber and meaner, less interesting and certainly less engaged if we stop listening, even—or maybe especially—to the people we don’t want to hear.
As we returned to campus this fall, Doug Elmendorf, the dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where I teach, made the health of our civil discourse a priority inside and outside the classroom. That includes wrestling with ideas we find disturbing, and then debating, honestly and rigorously, policy proposals that weigh values differently. “Courage is not just about standing up for what you believe,” Elmendorf tells students. “Sometimes courage is about sitting down and listening to what you may not initially believe.”
Which is not to say that if we all just listened more, our wounds would heal and our conflicts end. Nor does it mean abandoning our values; it’s a strategic reminder of the value of humility. “It’s always wise to seek the truth in our opponents’ error, and the error in our own truth,” theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said. Listening, closely and bravely, to an opposing view deepens our insight and sharpens our arguments—especially in our public life, as we figure out what a wise and just immigration policy might look like, or the smart balance between our values and our interests in the Middle East.
It’s long past time that we quiet our animal spirits. This has been a fierce year of public battle, political fights that have infected our friendships and family, degraded our discourse, defaced institutions, disturbed our peace. I grew up in Quaker schools, which included regular silent meetings. This did not come naturally to nine-year-olds. But I found then, and need to be reminded now, that we can’t hear the soft, sane voice inside us if we’re talking all the time, and certainly not if we’re shouting.
Instead, let’s listen. Invite surprise. Invest in subtlety. And surrender to silence once in a while.
This piece was co-published with Medium, as part of its Words That Matter 2018 series.
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