Our youngest grandson graduated from Vanderbilt. His graduation/commencement ceremony was outdoors on a very hot, humid, sunny day. His college was the last of several to walk across the stage. Williams was late in the names for his college. It was a long, tough, but worthwhile, day.
Mercifully the Chancellor gave a brief charge to the students. One of his five points was very important to me. He encouraged the students to engage in civil discourse.
Diatribe: In my opinion we must as a nation learn to engage in civil discourse or we risk the loss of our democracy. The vast majority of our public discourse is not civil—it is diatribe. Loud ranting and finding fault in others is the preferred communication of politicians, political commentators, sport commentators, internet comments, and often Facebook shares; even preachers. In our private lives, unfortunately diatribe is too often the discourse of choice for parents, spouses and children; employers and employees; teachers and students.
Diatribe is the dominant model. Think about it—- Maxine Waters and Donald Trump, Sean Hannity and Rachael Maddow, Greg Gutfeld and Stephen Colbert—do visions of civil discourse form in your imagination, or can you see and hear clever ranting and finding fault in others?
Dialog. A major problem is — most of us do not have alternative models to diatribe. We are not taught civil discourse. We do not have a clear idea of that which makes discourse civil. The primary method we use to avoid diatribe is to avoid discussions of controversial issues. The problems as I see them, are — if we cannot civilly discuss serious issues how can we expect them to be resolved civilly? If they are not resolved civilly, how uncivil will the resolutions become? Our nation and others have gone to war over issues that could not be solved in a civil manner.
In my modest book, Being a Proverbial Student, I mention I learned the importance of dialog as a model for civil discourse. In my opinion, the most important factor for dialog is proper listening. All too often we listen improperly. We listen for mistakes by the other person. That is not proper listening. We listen, not hearing, just waiting for our turn to make our points. That is not proper listening.
Proper listening is hearing what the other person is saying with a willingness to admit the weaknesses in my position, and to admit the strengths in the other person’s views. Without the willingness, I cannot engage in dialog.
The Bible says it well: in James we find: “….. let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” In Proverbs: “Listen to advice and accept instruction that you may gain wisdom for the future.” And another Proverb probably says it best: “If one gives an answer before hearing, it is folly and shame.”
I should read in a similar manner. I should read, trying to understand a writers’ point of view, with a willingness to recognize strengths in other positions and weaknesses in my own.
It starts with me. The easy action would be to dismiss the problem. Attribute diatribe to politicians and others over which I have no control. But the truth is — I need to be constantly aware of my responsibility to those within my sphere of influence. Do I properly listen to my wife, children, grandchildren and friends? Am I willing to admit weaknesses in my opinions and ideas? Am I willing to admit strengths in the opinions and positions of others, particularly on tough issues about which I may be passionate? Often I fail, and need to work on improving my proper listening.
Recently I tested myself and learned from the experience. I entered a dialog with some trusted friends, consciously focused on proper listening.
I am writing another book and I care deeply about the topic. I showed selected portions of a draft of the book to my friends and invited their comments. Their comments came in writing and in some good coffee-time discussions.
I committed myself to proper reading and listening which was not easy. Frequently I wanted to erupt into diatribe and cry aloud—don’t you understand? Don’t you see my point? I frequently did not understand their comments because I was so committed to my position. I had to ask questions and stayed committed to proper listening and reading.
In the long run, my commitment to civil discourse paid dividends. I learned and as a consequence adjusted my thinking and improved my writing. My book is better for those changes.
I am going to work harder on proper listening (and proper reading) – on the serious and not so serious; in my home, my consulting, my friendships, and my church—I will try to properly listen everywhere within my personal sphere of influence.
If we all try proper listening our world will be better for it, and who knows, maybe others will learn.