By Jennifer Richardson
As I am sure many of us have, I have been paying more attention to public discourse of late. The days of politics humming along in the background of our lives are becoming a distant memory.
I have watched more debates, and I have generally paid more attention to blogs, Facebook, social media, and wide-ranging personal conversations while our nation enters in to a discussion with itself about what direction we want to go and who we want to help lead us there.
With an even larger scope than just one election cycle, for several years I have also been observing our national and local discourse.
From news conferences highlighting the biggest global issues to the smallest social media post talking about our neighbor—it seems everyone has something to say and a pulpit from which to say it.
I understand the need to communicate, and I empathize with those who are willing to step up and have an identified voice in the public arena. It is often more courageous than it appears, and we should be authentically thankful that we live in a country that places a high value on freedom of expression.
The inevitable consequence of freedom is dissonance. Many of us are not deterred by discord and still want to be a part of the dialogue. And we should be.
However, floating around our new platforms from which we voice our opinions, I am noticing a trend toward shallow communication; gut responses, big on personal pushback and small on intellectual pursuit. Reflective and careful response time is disappearing into hostile sound-bites and a barrage of statistics as soon as a differing viewpoint is expressed.
We are listening only to win or prepare our next answer, not to actually hear intention or message. The only objective is to mute the opposition by quickly labeling and disabling them. This strategy is mostly effective and many fledgling conversations of substance are quickly reduced to personal attacks, and soon participants and listeners feel justified in tuning out altogether.
Perhaps even worse, we are expending much of our communication time and resources in formats that are anonymous or far-removed from any genuine human interaction. We can become faceless voices that vent frustration and throw blame; generally making sound and fury, but landing outside of resolution or progress.
If dialogue is quickly stopped in its tracks by clinging to the mantra that an opposing position is offensive, what can we achieve together? Does it follow that people on differing sides of an argument are required to be offended? Or enemies? Offense is powerful; strong enough to bury the desire to listen.
Far from enriching the public collective thought life, this practice of venting about being offended from the privacy of our digital screens walks us backward into the murky waters of feeling justified but lacking the courage, aptitude, or practice to face anyone who may disagree.
What happened to the willingness to entertain discussion, or even simply disagree? Real discussion has the power to open minds, or sharpen our own ability to passionately defend what we believe. It is healthy and ultimately necessary to hear perspectives other than our own if the goal is to understand before we try to be understood.
It seems we should be modeling and teaching how to converse and remain civil, to disagree and part as friends, to genuinely explore a perspective other than one’s own. Do we want to live in a world where we can only connect with people who think exactly as we do?
Collaboration can be challenging but it generally leads to better outcomes, both for individual relationships and culture. So speak up. But also make yourself available to hear. Personal perspectives, by definition, are incomplete. We may never agree, but if we demand the privilege of speaking, we should accept the responsibility of listening.
When we remove a person over an opinion, it feels powerful for a minute to crowd out everything but our right-ness, but then our unchallenged rightness turns slowly to isolation, and isolation becomes irrelevance. We have the freedom to be offended, but what is liberty if we spend it in the confines of a padlocked mind?