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Helping American Listen

Fifteen years ago, while I was conducting a series of round-table discussions on open society among university professors in Uzbekistan, one of them did something that has remained in my mind to this day—even though I have long forgotten what she actually said. The professors around the table had worked with each other for many years and knew each other very well. One of them directed a question specifically to one of her colleagues by name, prefacing it with an impassioned, and, I must add, very eloquent description of the state of affairs at their university. Her preface was very long. She asked her colleagues more than once to listen to what she was saying and to not interrupt her until she was finished. And when she was finished and had finally put her question to her colleague, I remember thinking that she had put her finger on the very heart of the matter and that I was looking forward to her colleague’s response. And then, just as he began to reply, she turned to the professor sitting to her right and began a side conversation with him.

I was puzzled by this obvious show of disrespect, even though it was something that I had already experienced many times in the former Soviet Union. I put up my hand to stop the discussion. I reminded her that she had just posed a question specifically to her colleague, and I asked her whether she didn’t want to listen to his reply. It was then that she did the thing that I cannot forget. It would be impossible for me to adequately convey the ugliness of the gesture that she made, or the look on her face while she was making it. But she pointed to him with a half-laughing, half-mocking, half-disgusted expression on her face, and then waved her arm at the universe to convey her feeling that she had no respect for him whatsoever, and that nothing he could possibly say could ever be worthy of her attention.

I recall this incident today, because I recently saw the very same thing in a discussion here in the States, because the state of political discussion in the United States sometimes makes me think that I am still back in Uzbekistan—and because it makes me think that if there is just one thing that IF could contribute to our society, it would be finding a way to help America listen.

The dictionaries tell us that listening means paying attention to, taking heed of, taking notice of, minding, marking, noting, bearing in mind, taking into account, taking into consideration, and tuning into something that has been said. It goes far beyond the effort we might make to hear a sound. It is paying attention to what someone says. We urge other people to listen to us because we want to influence their thoughts and actions by our advice. We say ‘Alas, he did not listen’ when someone hears our advice, but does not follow it. But listening to advice and following it are two entirely different things. We can listen very carefully to someone’s advice and understand what it means full well and decide not to follow it­ precisely because we have listened very carefully to it, and have understood what it means, and happen to disagree.

Listening means paying attention to something. Agreeing means assenting, or concurring, or saying ‘Yes!’ to it. And these are entirely different things despite the temptation that we all feel to think that people have not listened to us simply because they did not agree with what we said.

But it should be obvious that we can listen to someone and not agree with what he or she said. And it should also be obvious that we can agree with someone without ever hearing that person say anything at all. This is the reason why listening and agreeing are two entirely different things. But if we begin to confuse listening to something with agreeing with it, then we will probably have little choice but to conclude that people often do not listen to each other at all—unless, of course, we listen only to people who actually agree with us.

There is, to my mind, very little point to listening only to people who agree with us. For there is little possibility of learning anything from them about the matter at hand, let alone changing our own minds about it as a result of listening to what they say—and precisely because we already agree with it.

In that case, we are only listening to a song that we know by heart and can sing together on key.

What can IF do to help America listen?

Probably very little. America is so very big, and IF is so very small.

But we could try to instill a curiosity in our discussion participants about ideas that differ from their own, and a respect—or at the very least a tolerance—for the people who think they may be true.

We could try to foster a recognition of human fallibility—of every human’s fallibility—and an understanding that what we believe may be very far from the truth.

We could try to discourage people from assuming that the people who disagree with them must be idiots or liars.

We could try to dissuade them from name-calling and ad hominem attacks and arguments from authority and calling other peoples’ ideas ‘Ridiculous!’ and waving their arms with disrespect to dismiss them out of hand.

We could try to encourage them to listen carefully and with respect to—not just both, but—all sides of an issue.

And we could try to live up to these ideals ourselves, and to model them for other people as best we can in our sanctuary projects, our public discussions, and our student-centered discussion courses.

Unless we try to do this, or something very much like it, we might as well just listen to ourselves talk.