The further along we get in media and Tweeting and texting, the more it seems people want to pack as much information into as little time as possible.
This is often an admirable goal; when you can state a point concisely, it often comes across more clearly.
But when we want to talk about deeper issues – things that cannot be explained in five seconds, five minutes, or even five hours – short back-and-forth exchanges are completely inadequate. There’s no substitute for the in-depth process of explaining and learning about the context of those things that can’t be figured out right away.
For example, let’s say we want to know why some people have certain destructive or offensive tendencies and habits – things that are far too radical or weird for us ever to even think about taking up. We can very easily dismiss these folks as just being weird or crazy if we like; that is our right.
But if we take this approach, then it becomes evident that we really don’t truly want to know why a person acts the way they do. If we are content with writing folks off as radical or crazy, then that’s it – there are no more questions to be asked, and no more answers to be given. We’ve made up our mind.
If you want real answers to those questions that keep coming up but never seem to get answered, you have to be willing to sit and listen for an extended amount of time – more then just a few minutes – and you have to be temporarily willing to see things strictly as the other person sees them, rather than as you see them.
So much media these days is devoted to sound bites and other sorts of snips, quips, and clips. This stuff definitely has its place, but it is important to be able to distinguish between a quick exchange and really gaining an understanding of something. For example, if you want an understanding of Islamic politics, or feminism and men’s rights movements, or the debates about sexuality, contraception, and abortion, you will learn little to nothing new from a rapid-fire exchange between people from different sides of the issue; you’d be much better off asking questions to many different people from each side of each viewpoint, truly seeking to learn above and beyond forming judgments.
This is important to me because very often, I see that the loudest voice in a debate usually seems to prevail over the most thoughtful one; Because catchy one-liners seem to be more memorable, often, than the much more important, deeper understanding that is being missed. This is often why slick politicians prevail over honest civil servants, and why aggressive, boastful heads often prevail over cooler, more level heads. What needs to be heard too often gets drowned out, both on a large scale and in our communities and families – and we all suffer for it.
This dynamic can only have a chance of changing if the listening audience changes how it listens, and how it values the time it puts into listening. Why do certain blathering talking heads seem to draw a steady audience for the often near-empty rhetoric they offer? Because that audience has been primed to listen for style over substance. And “that audience” is far bigger than many people think; all of us are a part of it at some time or another – because on a passive level, it’s easier for anybody to listen to a short message that grabs our attention than a longer message that is much more meaningful but not as quick to draw us in.
If we want to raise the level of discussion, we have to be willing to actively skew the way we listen disproportionately in favor of those who are thoughtful but not loud, those who are brilliant but not necessarily glib, those who are insightful but not aggressive enough (or attention-hogging enough) to force such insight down others’ throats. That is what will sideline empty politicians and blather.
Listening is often thought of as a passive act. You sit and keep your mouth shut and just take in what’s around you. But often, in human interaction, listening has to be an active act. You have to make an effort to listen for the things you really need to hear. In a classroom, for example, it might be easier to listen to the sound of your classmate tapping their pencil, or to listen to the thoughts going through your mind, than it is to listen to the professor or teacher at the front of the room going over in-depth, complex material. But you make an effort anyway, as much as you are able, to turn on your active listening and tune in to the class material at hand, once you deem this material to be necessary to listen to.
This active, intentional listening is what we must engage in if we want the dialogue to be better and more reflective of our needs and preferences. And we can’t do this if we always consume our information in chopped-up soundbites and one-liners – habits that lead people to think in terms of either-or and lose the complexity and full essence of the reality around them. We deserve better than that.