In his brilliant essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell says that many people have bad writing habits. “If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.”
He focused on the problems with writing, which continue to be serious today, but I want to discuss a related matter: listening.
There are many causes of the political division that has gripped our country, but one fundamental reason for our growing polarization is that we have simply stopped listening to one another. Could we usher in a form of political regeneration if we learned how to listen more effectively?
Why don’t we listen? One problem is that we give in to the temptation to impose labels on one another, labels like “authoritarian,” or “socialist.” It feels good to label people, because it makes it very easy for us to dismiss what others say, even before they say it. And that protects us from having to question our own beliefs. We start by knowing that others are evil, and then we can stop listening to them. And before the conversation really gets started, we begin criticizing one another. And then we get angry.
As much fun as all of this is, it is deeply flawed. We are not being fair to ourselves or to others. We are closing ourselves off to opportunities that could — as Orwell said — help us think more clearly. If we are going to solve the many problems we are facing, we need to work together, and that means we need to learn how to listen to one another. I have three modest suggestions here to put us on a better path.
1. Suspend your belief that the person you are talking to has terrible motives. Don’t worry, you can always come back to that belief later, if nothing the person says changes your mind. But if you temporarily suspend your belief that the other person is evil, you can at least hear what is being said. Who knows, you might even change your mind about the person. That person might still be, in your opinion, wrong, but if that person doesn’t have terrible motives, you don’t need to be immediate enemies, and you don’t need to get angry right away. That’s not a bad place to start.
2. Don’t focus on how you plan to respond to someone while the other person is talking. Have you ever had friends who clearly stop listening to you as you speak because they are already busy preparing a response to what you are saying, but because they are working on a response, they really have no idea what you are saying?
I’ve had friends like that, and despite my affection for them, their inability to hear me has driven me crazy. I’ve had to stop what I was saying and point out to them that they weren’t listening. And what is fascinating to me is that they had no idea they weren’t listening. It wasn’t intentional. They just thought they knew what I was going to say. So if this is you, it is time to change this bad habit.
3. Consider the possibility that what someone is saying might help you clarify your own views. What I am suggesting is not that you immediately open yourself up to the possibility that you are wrong. A good place to begin is to look for things in what someone else says that will help you strengthen your own opinions. You may be speaking to someone who you think is wrong but who is clearly more versed in a knowledge of history than you. If you open yourself up to listening to that person, you might be able to make use of something that is said that will expand and clarify what you already believe.
None of this is difficult, and these three points are not anything like a comprehensive guide to good listening skills. But we have to start somewhere.
Who knows where it might lead? I am not a toxic optimist, and I have no illusions about the challenges facing us today. I don’t believe that good listening will bring us all together and that everything will be rainbows, harmony and singing “Kumbaya” together. But if we can’t at least improve our ability to listen, we cannot hope for the political regeneration of which Orwell spoke so eloquently.
Solomon D. Stevens is the author of “Religion, Politics, and the Law” (co-authored with Peter Schotten) and “Challenges to Peace in the Middle East.” He wrote this for InsideSources.com.