A Short Piece
You Couldn’t Have Been Listening if You Don’t Think Like Me
If someone doesn’t change their views into yours, they must be closed-minded. (Note sarcasm.)
There’s a big emphasis today on listening as opposed to talking, as there is a big emphasis on the need for “conversations” about x, y, and z. Never mind that if I say “we need to have a conversation about how Socialism is ruining America” and then say “you need to just sit there and be quiet because I’m upset,” then in fact by “conversation” I mean “monologue” (but saying “you need to listen to my monologue” doesn’t sound very good) — the point is that today lots of people are talking about the need for listening (which is ironic). So what is listening, exactly? Hearing? Is there a difference?
Listening, as opposed to hearing, probably involves empathy and trying to understand what another person is saying as they understand it, while hearing is understanding what another person is saying as you understand it. So empathy seems to be the key, which I’ve argued in other essays is ultimately critical thinking. Critical thinking is empathy.
Okay, great, case closed! Well, sort of: I think we need to take a moment to stress that someone can listen to you and still not think like you. The assumption seems to be going around that if someone actually listened to me, they’d change their views and think like me. The same mistake happens with empathy: if someone was actually empathetic, the disagreement would vanish, (because they’d think like me). Agreement seems to be the litmus test for determining if someone is listening or empathetic, because how else could we tell? (Other than say trust and “assuming the best” of others, which would leave us vulnerable to manipulation and worse.) But if that’s the case, then listening and empathy become practically indistinguishable from indoctrination.
If we don’t believe someone has empathetically listened to us unless they become like us, then not only do we assume that we are right and they wrong, but then empathy and listening become tools of power, conversion, and manipulation. When I say “be teachable,” I practically mean “think like me,” even if in my mind I convince myself that I only mean “be open to new ideas.” Problematically, the way I identify if someone has “been teachable” is if they change their views to mine; otherwise, I have no evidence to think that they’ve been “open to new ideas.”
If I won’t believe you’ve truly listened to me unless you agree that the Civil War was about States’ Rights, then I will think of you as self-absorbed, undemocratic, and even selfish because you resisted what boils down to a kind of “conversion therapy” I force you into experiencing. The same could be said if you won’t believe if Capitalism is superior to Socialism, the Drug War is a disaster, trade-deals are good, my puppy looks like a kitty…take your pick…
Necessarily, we must practically believe we are right, for otherwise we wouldn’t think like we did, and this makes us ripe for making the mistake of conflating “listening” with “agreeing with me.” This doesn’t mean we can’t intellectually believe we could be wrong, but we must “live our lives” practically as if we are right (we can simultaneously believe intellectually that we are humble, making us ripe for self-deception). As referenced in my essay “On Certainty,” Wittgenstein warned:
If we spent all our time wondering if we were actually right, we’d be like Nietzsche’s centipede: paralyzed until death. We must assume we’re right, so if someone was really listening to us, they’d think like us. I mean, because we’re right, right?
Inspired by Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz, we seem setup by our brains to think that there’s something like four reasons why someone wouldn’t think like us:
1. They’re stupid.
2. We didn’t explain ourselves well enough.
3. They were hearing but not listening.
4. They don’t want to face the truth.
If 1, they need our help.
If 2, we might feel like we always have to do the work while others sit back and wait to be fed, and/or conclude that if someone was really listening, they’d be able to fill in the blanks for us (as friends tend to do).
If 3, they’re part of the problem and might deserve being ignored.
If 4, they’re part of the problem and should be ignored if not confronted with force.
Regardless if 1, 2, 3, or 4, by conflating “listening” with “thinking what’s right” which must practically mean “thinking like us,” we are setup to be the savior and others those in need of saving and/or defeating. That or we’ve set up the board to assume nobody ever takes us seriously and that we are oppressed and marginalized, diverting focus from those truly in need.
Nothing good can come from believing “listening” is equivalent to “thinking like us.” So what’s the answer? Well, we need to at least understand that people can listen to us and still disagree, but we might resist this because we would lack a clear way to tell who’s listening to us from who isn’t. This is existentially difficult and would leave us vulnerable, but we have no choice unless we are to make “listening” something that always positions us to be a savior and justified to seek and use power.
We can’t distinguish “hearing” from “listening” without cutting corners, which at the end of the day means we must learn to trust one another. We should assume people have a good reason for not thinking like us (regardless how hard that might be) and keep thinking that way until we’ve exhausted all other possible options and can no longer keep giving them the benefit of the doubt (which usually takes way longer than we like to think). But perhaps we have good reason not to trust? Perhaps we do, and in fact, we’ve probably been hurt in the past, and thus feel warranted not to trust. But as there is no other option for relationships than to trust, so there are no other options for a democratic society or nation. Vulnerability is the only road to wholeness. But who wants wholeness if it means unity with people who don’t listen?
And there’s the rub.
¹Wittgenstein, Ludwig. On Certainty. New York: First Harper Torchbook Edition, 1972: 44e.