Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Talking but Not Listening

In his book American Protestantism and a Jewish State Hertzel Fishman describes the disagreements between pro-Arab and pro-Israel Protestants following the establishment of the state of Israel as follows:

The rival groups in American Protestantism were simply talking past one another with neither group answering the other’s viewpoint convincingly. The position of the pro-Israel faction who argued Israel’s security needs, was ignored by the pro-Arab group. The latter’s claim for justice for the refugees was all but brushed aside by the former group. (pg. 129)

Nothing much has changed, I thought, reading these lines. To this day such conversations often amount to little more than verbal struggles for the moral high ground. Few are really open to being convinced by the other. Few are willing to really learn or really hear the other. In a black and white world of heroes and villains we assign noble goals to our favorites and sordid motivations to our chosen adversaries. Undoubtedly some of us listen and learn eagerly. Some of us overcome our skepticism, if not our convictions, long enough to ponder the positions of our opponents. But this seems increasingly rare.

Last week I inadvertently initiated a (fairly mild) conflict with members of my own family when one of my siblings posted one of those ubiquitous Facebook polls. The poll read as follows: “Do you approve of Obama’s decision to skip the Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery to go on vacation?” My objection to this poll question had little to do with whether skipping the ceremony was a good thing or bad. I rather objected to the way it was put. First it uses “Obama” rather than “President Obama” or even “Mr. Obama.” During the years of George W. Bush’s presidency his last name was used in similar and equally disrespectful ways. Second, I was put off by the phrase “to go on vacation.” This implies that a rare weekend in Chicago with his family was the equivalent of “going on vacation.” It also suggests President Obama intended to do nothing to honor American dead on Memorial Day—also untrue. I suggested the poll question was about as fair as asking, “Should Bush have launched a preemptive war that killed thousands of innocent Iraqis?”

Be all that as it may, this poll and the conflict that followed underscored for me how poorly we engage in significant conversations about important things. We often seek advantage not clarity. We frequently seek to silence our opponents, not understand them. Now it may surprise some of you, but I am a real fan of conflict avoidance. I would rather not get into arguments over the relative merits of the Republicans and Democrats. I would just as soon skip the fulminating about the perfidious behavior of the Palestinians or the Israelis. And please don’t try to rally me to your cause on the issues of hymns and praise choruses. I am definitely an on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand kind of guy. When all else fails, I would argue, keep your mouth shut! Now this may keep the peace (especially important in a family!), but it seldom helps us solve our most intractable human problems. If the Arabs and Israelis really want to engage their differences (and there are plenty on both sides of the issue who have little interest in doing so), they are going to need to listen to each other. If those who are concerned about the poor who lack the most basic healthcare and those troubled by the growth in government spending are ever going to find common ground, they will need to stop shouting at one another.

A perfect example of all this is the ongoing uproar over the Arizona law requiring people suspected of being illegal aliens to produce their papers they are requested by a policeman. On the right people cry, “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” while the left accuses such people of racism. Neither side, I think, is really listening to the other. No country can be expected to permit unlimited and unchecked immigration without significant fraying of its infrastructure and support systems. On the other hand, it seems likely that persons targeted by police will have darker skin and Hispanic accents. And would the law’s supporters be happy if the police had the right at any time to demand that any of us show our “papers”? Such a demand reminds one of an eastern European country under Communism! All this is to say that the conversation could be carried on around different poles than “illegals” and “racists”. Could we ask what are the conditions impoverishing our southern neighbors? Could we discern whether the labor needs of southwestern agriculture could be effectively served by more readily granted work permits? Could we open our hearts to children brought into this country as infants who have no legal status but are in every way as American as the other kids in their grammar and high schools. Could we sit still long enough to genuinely hear the concerns of the other? I have my doubts.


  1. Well put Jay. I'll belay any other comment while I think about what you shared...

  2. I like the sentiment "Is this a hill I want to die on?"