The Lost Art of Listening

The Lost Art of Listening

Listening to others is fast becoming a lost art. The most common sign of this is refusal to listen to views that oppose our own, but recent years have revealed a more serious sign—demanding that others refrain from listening to views that oppose ours. That is what happened on March 10th at Yale University. A debate on civil liberties was scheduled between liberal Monica Miller, and conservative Kristen Waggoner, with Yale law professor Kate Stith serving as moderator. But the event was paused and then ended when 120 law school students disrupted it carrying signs and shouting verbal abuse and threats to the debaters. Police were called to escort them to safety.

When the incident was reported in the news, Circuit Court Judge Larry Silberman suggested what should be done about it: “All federal judges . . .who are presumably committed to free speech should carefully consider whether any student so identified [as a protester] should be disqualified for potential [court] clerkships.”

Silberman’s suggestion is perfectly reasonable. After all, the incident did not occur in an elementary school but in one of the nation’s most elite law schools. The protesters were not children, but young adults who in a few years will be prosecuting or defending individuals in courts of law. Many will later become district attorneys and judges or serve as legislators and senators. In these capacities they will be responsible for guaranteeing that truth will determined, rights will be upheld, and justice will prevail over injustice. These are awesome responsibilities that require the ability to think critically, gather and evaluate evidence, separate truth from error, and reach sound conclusions. There is no way they can do these things without listening carefully to all viewpoints on issues, not just those they prefer.

How many college and graduate school students are as ignorant and arrogant as those Yale students? Given the popularity of students taking offense at every perceived or imagined micro-insult, and of social media “cancelling” the speech of those who challenge the “accepted” narratives, the number is large. How many college and graduate school professors approve of the Yale students’ behavior? For that matter how many of them teach their courses in ways that promote it? (The lack of professorial condemnation of the Yale story suggests the number is not paltry.)

The Yale students’ protest of speech they disagree with, the media’s refusal to publish ideas they reject, and educators’ actual or tacit approval of both are serious developments in American education and culture. So how did these things happen?

In the 1970s the Japanese gained world leadership in a number of industries, notably electronics and automobile manufacturing. American business leaders determined that the cause of their decline was their employees’ lack of thinking and problem-solving skills. They urged colleges to give greater emphasis to those skills and were quickly joined by an impressive number of educational and governmental associations. The “Critical Thinking Movement” was quickly embraced by most colleges and many high schools and produced laudatory results over the next few decades.

In time, however, a counter-movement—the “Self-Esteem Movement”—was becoming increasingly influential. Its view was that feeling good about oneself is the most important factor in success and thus questioning and evaluating one’s own ideas and beliefs should be avoided. The message, which soon gained dominance, was in effect “criticize other people’s beliefs and ideas as much as you wish, but never criticize your own.” Gradually at first, and then more swiftly, the emphasis in college classrooms changed from the search for objective truth through thoughtful analysis of ideas to the exaltation of feelings. Intellectual humility departed, arrogance rushed in.

This change has convinced many people, especially the young and malleable, that there is no need to listen to what others say because they already possess the truth about everything and the answer to every question. Furthermore, that opening their minds to others’ perspectives is a threat to the great god within them. From that conviction, it was a short step to believing that anyone who has the audacity to express a dissenting view is not just being rude but, in effect, committing blasphemy!

What has happened in recent decades can be summarized as follows: American culture, in particular its education system, has replaced good sense with nonsense, sanity with insanity. The negative effect of that change is already clear to see. And it will grow much worse if we do not restore good sense and sanity. That restoration begins by respecting the efficacy of listening.

Listening carefully to others’ views, and giving them a fair hearing, expands our understanding of issues.

Greater understanding of issues makes us realize there is always more to learn and makes us more humble.

Being more humble reduces our defensiveness about our views and makes us willing to admit that we could conceivably be mistaken.

Admitting that we might be mistaken makes us more willing to refine our views and improve our judgments.

Taking greater care in making judgments increases the likelihood of  improving our problem-solving and decision-making in our occupations, community affairs, and personal lives, and influencing others to follow our example.

This approach may seem much too modest to change an entire culture. Something more sweeping may seem necessary. However, the loss didn’t occur in one great cultural wave, but bit by bit over time, one person influencing another, then one social agency, then others. The only way the art of listening can be restored, I believe, is by individuals making the changes in their own behavior and values and encouraging educators, journalists, religious leaders, and government officials to follow their example.

Copyright © 2022 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero