On Reading and Listening
Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

On Reading and Listening

In a recent essay I chastised the Florida Bishops Conference for adding a condemnation of contraception to their condemnation of abortion. My view was that the addition weakened their argument with many Catholics and even more non-Catholics. Three readers responded to the essay. One agreed but with qualifications. Another didn’t engage my argument at all but instead merely said both practices are “inherently evil,” and the “promotion of artificial contraception” has enabled, perhaps even triggered, the “culture of death.”

The third responder called my thinking “muddled” and cited two examples.  One was that I qualified my interpretations of the Bishop’s message by prefacing them with words like “it seems” and “it is likely.” (My reason for doing so was that I could not speak with certainty about what they had left uncertain.) His other example was my statement that the Bishops should not have conflated contraception and abortion because they are very different acts. The respondent said “Wow!” to that claim and went on to say that the connection between them is “incontrovertible” and they are “as linked as are Siamese twins.” I submit his assessment is mistaken because there is a significant moral difference between them. To put the difference simply, abortion is about MURDER and contraception is not.

I was not surprised at the responders’ disagreement with my essay—after all, disagreement is part and parcel of argumentation. What saddened me was that two of the responders did not fully engage the argument I presented, but noted some passages and ignored others, thus avoiding the wise counsel Francis Bacon (1561-1626) offered over four centuries ago:

Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted… but to weigh and consider.

The wisdom of Bacon’s imperative lies in the fact that we must fully understand what someone says before we can have a legitimate basis for either agreement or disagreement. In other words, until we grasp the meaning and implications of any statement or argument, we cannot “weigh and consider” its strengths and weaknesses, in which case our response will be arbitrary and therefore of little value.

The world of communication is very different today than it was in Bacon’s time. Books and essays are no longer the dominant means of receiving information. We have radio, television, videos, text messages, and tweets. The broadcast media have been largely reduced to sound bites, often less than a minute or so, and tweets are limited to 140 characters. And the rapid pace of such communication conditions us to respond rapidly ourselves, often without pausing for analysis or reflection.

Another reason we tend to avoid weighing and considering other people’s ideas before responding to them is modern culture’s emphasis on valuing our own thoughts and beliefs more than other people’s, even if—in some cases especially if—our own are so shallow or false as to cry out for correction. The mere hint that a speaker or writer’s views differ from our own makes us feel not only uncomfortable but also fearful of diminishing our self-esteem. And the stronger the hint, the more we are tempted to avoid engaging the other person’s message at all but instead to distort it or to demean its author. (In the case where the message flatters our own view, of course, we embrace it unquestioningly.)

Adding to the problem is modern culture’s disdain for humility. To be more specific, its promotion of the prideful notion that we must cling to our ideas (our “truth”) and reject all opposing ideas in order to be emotionally healthy. That notion leads to suspicion of those who disagree with us and thus makes it difficult, if not impossible, to learn from others, overcome the limitations of our own thinking (we all have them), and cooperate with others to solve problems and resolve issues. These deficits are at the root of the divisiveness observable everywhere, from the halls of Congress to the family dinner table.

The solution, at the personal level, is to acknowledge our inherent imperfection, the benefit of being open to other views than our own, and the importance of replacing our habit of rushing to judgment with this more sensible habit:

When reading a book or an essay, skim it first, note our reactions and express them in the margins as questions rather than as judgments. (Questions invite closer examination and prevent premature judgment.) After skimming it, identify the central idea, then read the essay again, this time more carefully, noting how the author develops and supports that idea and answering the questions we raised earlier. (Where appropriate, we may ask additional questions.) Finally, decide whether the author has sufficiently supported his or her central idea and, in light of that decision, determine which of the author’s points are well taken and which are not.

With slight modifications, this habit can be used in listening to spoken presentations on radio or television. The main difficulty there is that the spoken word goes by too quickly to be thoughtfully considered, but taping or videotaping the presentation can solve that difficulty.

The challenge of making the culture more supportive of examining ideas carefully is, of course, much greater than changing our personal habits of mind, and will be addressed in a separate essay.

Copyright © by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero
1 comment
  • I am the ‘third responder’ that Mr. Rugggerio refers to in this post titled “On Reading and Listening”.

    Mr. Ruggerio says in this post in reference to my comment on his article: “His other example was my statement that the Bishops should not have conflated contraception and abortion because they are very different acts.” That is not an accurate reading of the statement of Ruggerio’s that I commented on. The correct text that I quoted and commented on was the concluding paragraph in his article: “Any way one considers the Bishops’ melding of contraception and abortion, it was a mistake that they should by all means avoid repeating.” I did not say WOW! to that claim, I said “HOLY COW!” to that claim.

    The difference between the misquote and the actual quote is significant. I have no quarrel with the idea that there is “…a significant moral difference between abortion and contraception” as he claims – but that’s not what he argued in his original post. Instead, as is clear from his his concluding paragraph, he argued that it was a mistake for the Bishops to ‘meld’ the two. My argument was against that. Mr. Ruggerio has still not responded to that unless he means to say that since the two are not morally equivalent the Bishops should not have made and should not in the future make the connection. In my mind, that is worse than mistaken, it is absurd. Mr. Ruggerio should pay heed to his own advice on reading and listening.

    note: All three responses referred to the ‘contraceptive mentality’
    as a causal factor in the cultural acceptance of abortion.