A few months ago, at a conference in London, David Simon, the creator of The Wire, remarked: “The proof we had at some success of not being completely polemical is that everybody; liberals, conservatives, libertarians, marxists, free market capitalists; they all found something that validated their pre-existing notions. They would point to it[the show] and say, ‘What’s going on there is exactly what I’ve been talking about.’”1
His remarks reminded me of the responses to the protests surrounding #Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter. Both liberals and conservatives would point to the ambiguity in the original case, the protests, and the response of authorities as justification for their own beliefs. Most of the time, I got the impression that neither side even tried listening to the other.
Listening is not a skill we are taught to utilize in a disagreement. Rather, most of us are taught to use the facts and be clever. We are taught to be convincing. If it hasn’t worked so far, maybe we just haven’t been clever enough?! I doubt it.
Michael Rozier SJ, writing in the context of people who refused to vaccinate their children, pointed out the importance of dialoging about values and not just showing the other person ‘facts’ to prove your point. Oftentimes just focusing on facts can sideline the other person’s feelings and experiences, which is a quick recipe for losing their attention.
Recently, more ‘facts’ came to light about the Ferguson Police Department. A report published by the US Attorney General’s office claimed a need for “wholesale change” citing statistics and crudely racist emails as evidence.2 The report sparked renewed protest during which two officers were shot and wounded.3 Based on these ‘facts’, I could easily see a repeat of the debates when the Ferguson controversy was first sparked. However, overwhelming someone with facts is not going to make them want to stand by your side.
To repeat what David Simon said about every political group that watched his show: “They all found something that validated their pre-existing notions. They would point to it[the show] and say, ‘What’s going on there is exactly what I’ve been talking about.’”… What is lacking is any serious listening.
Let’s not just shout back and forth! It is exhausting, at least for me. As I reflect upon the mix of responses and justifications people all along the political spectrum point to, I wonder if anyone else is finally tired enough of arguing to stop listening to themselves and start listening to each other.