What Can We Hear When We Listen?

It started with excuses.

“But they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

“I heard it somewhere!”

“Why would he/she/they lie?”

“You’re on the other side; of course you’re going to say that.”

I had so many reasons not to listen. At least, I told myself that. I had important things to say! Why shouldn’t everyone hear my voice? Why wasn’t I taken seriously? It was their fault – the people who disagreed with me, the people who ignored me, the people who spoke from ignorance (as I could clearly discern the truth better than they could).

This is the first trap politics lays for us, and I fell in face first. Certainty is a temptation that gives us strength and confidence, but undermines the flexibility that is necessary for good citizenship. It might feel nice to be rigid on spending, but it’s not very helpful when a devastating tornado tears through your community. It might be cathartic to dismiss someone out of hand, but it’s not particularly useful when you want to convince them to vote down-ticket.

Without listening, we lose the sense of where we are and what we want to achieve. Certainty brings “rightness” but not righteousness. Its siren song is as dangerous as the original monsters: by blocking our senses, consuming our attention and driving us towards obvious wreckage than we refuse to recognize. Listening, on the other hand, gives us the opportunity to absorb information, to see its patterns and deviations, to coordinate with others and, most importantly, to understand ourselves better.

By any demographic screen, I’m designed to be liberal. I’m a born and bred Brooklynite, with two super-prime Democratic voters for parents, black and female, mostly non-religious. But demographics aren’t destiny. My liberalism is a choice, and I make that choice by filtering everything that I hear through my own experiences. But for it to work, I have to actually listen to information outside of myself.

Listening does not mean giving advice. It doesn’t mean substituting my judgment for the speaker. It doesn’t provide the electric thrill of a rally or a speech, and it doesn’t project toughness or assertiveness. But it is the most powerful tool of citizenship. It gives us an understanding of what other people see as problems and what they’ve proposed as solutions. The more evidence we have and the more experiences we absorb, the better suited we become at discussing things with people who are different.

But beyond bringing us back into discussions we have ceased to have, listening lets us separate leaders who speak in good faith from those who seek power for their own ends. Listen to an elected official describe a problem and a solution. Listen for things that sound too good to be true, things that have been tried and failed. Listen for details – in those, the devil resides. And listen to yourself: ask why you believe things, what motivates you, what kind of world you want to see. If you listen clearly to your own mind, you will hear its echo in others, even if they’re born a thousand miles away from you and live a different life.

So resist the urge to talk sometimes – even if they’re “wrong,” even if they don’t bring facts. Because sincerely listening will give you more than words; it will bring you truth.


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