The United States is going through an identity crisis. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s going through an increasingly intense cultural shouting match. The narrative of “us vs. them” has seeped into everyday life; both my news and my newsfeed are consumed by divisiveness. Outrage is ubiquitous. Political decisions are followed by opinion pieces are followed by protests are followed by Facebook posts. We have reached a point where nearly everyone is angry or afraid or ashamed. No one feels represented. No one feels protected. Even if you personally don’t feel endangered, this cultural antagonism threatens something vital in us all. This feeling isn’t specific to one group – both liberals and conservatives see their values under attack.
All politics aside, one thing is clear: something is happening.
This is a critical time for democracy: for citizens to express their concerns and engage in the national discourse. It’s a daunting task. Today, the national discourse is around who we are – our core values, our expectations of ourselves as a country. Every single issue is up for discussion. We are trying to identify our social and economic norms. We are reevaluating the role of government at all levels. We are deciding how to interact with an increasingly globalized world. We are reinterpreting our very foundations of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
There is not one perfect answer. There isn’t even one single question, and there isn’t one approach to solving this. We need to be shouting. And protesting. And calling our representatives. We need to be writing our opinions on blogs and facebook posts. We need to find solidarity and make sure we’re heard. But we can’t just be shouting. We also need to be talking. And asking hard questions. And most importantly, we need to be listening.
In political and social discourse, listening can be the hardest thing to do. And the most powerful. Listening isn’t a passive activity – it requires active engagement.
- What are my biases? What are my privileges?
We accompany ourselves in every conversation we have. Even when we try to put on the veil of ignorance, we can never quite manage it. By design, we will never be a blank slate – so it is important to honestly assess our biases, privileges and core beliefs. We all have them, and acknowledging them can be incredibly uncomfortable. We often don’t want to admit that we feel superior to those less (insert characteristic here) than ourselves. For example: I grew up in a stable, well-off home. I have a high level of education. I have traveled to many different countries. I believe that cultural diversity is an important part of American culture. I have time to write self-righteous blog posts about politics. My level of privilege is relatively high. Because of these things, it might be hard for me to relate to someone who grew up in an impoverished home or someone who has never traveled or has limited education. It might be hard to relate to someone who believes in racial homogeny. It might even be hard for me to accept the opinion of someone less educated or less “worldly.” It’s a hard thing to admit that I might value someone’s opinion less – it directly challenges my belief that everyone has the same intrinsic worth. But that’s the nature of bias and privilege. Even if we do not purposefully devalue someone, our past experiences inform what we hear and perceive. By acknowledging my experience, by accepting the limitations it places on me, I have a fighting chance of seeing past it. It can also help me identify viewpoints and opinions I should seek out. It won’t work every time or all the time, but it’s a prerequisite for really hearing what others have to say.
- What are they saying? What don’t I understand?
The converse of understanding our personal biases is to understanding the viewpoints, biases, and beliefs of others. To really listen to someone, particularly someone with an opposing viewpoint, we must align ourselves with them. Aligning isn’t the same as agreeing – at least not in this definition. By aligning, I mean speaking the same language, putting aside our personal beliefs to understand what someone else is really saying. Even if you disagree, the intention isn’t to prove you’re right or to education the other person. It’s to broaden your understanding of the conversation as a whole. What about their argument troubles you? What do you simply not understand? Ask questions that will help you gain an understanding. This doesn’t mean grilling them or asking them leading questions that prove you were right all along. Ask questions that will clarify their logic. Ask questions that will help sharpen their argument. Ask questions that might convince you that they were right all along. Because maybe they are right. Even just a little bit.
- What did I learn?
Every good conversation will teach you something. Maybe it reaffirmed what you already believed. Maybe it gave you a deeper understanding of the topic. Maybe it changed your mind. When you really listen to another person, you will undoubtedly learn something. Acknowledge it. Appreciate it. Write it down so you’ll remember it. If you didn’t learn something, find out why. Did you ask the right questions? Did you probe far enough? Even knowing why you didn’t learn something can be a lesson – it gives you the opportunity to be a better listener in the future.
- What do I do now?
Some days, learning can be its own reward. Unfortunately, in our current political and cultural climate, we need involvement and action. Real, intentional listening can be a guide to this action. It can help identify shared beliefs and shared goals to build on. It can identify areas of misunderstanding. Alternatively, it can fuel determination and passion. Look at what you learned. Look at what you still need to learn. Use this to identify a point of entry. And once you start acting, don’t forget to keep listening.
One of the most important parts of listening is to listen to as many people as possible. Immediately following the election, many people committed to escaping their bubbles – seeking out people from across the political and social spectrum in order to understand the whole conversation. We should find people we disagree with and make a point to really listen to them. We should also find people we agree with – it’s amazing how much diversity there is even within our bubbles. There has been some great conversations about acknowledging the diversity within the Women’s March – and how we all need to listen and learn from each other in order to support one another. Listening isn’t going to solve all of our problems. It’s not a panacea – but it is one step we can take as we collectively shape our nation’s future.