What if instead of trying to change others who hold different views, we simply chose to listen to them? I mean, just stopped telling others what they should be thinking and feeling, and were just present with them? What if the goal was not to change others, but simply to understand them? How might our own ideas and opinions change, including our perception of those others? How would the world change, and our relationship to it?
Liberalism, as was classically defined, was about inviting others into our space. It was about empathy and compasssion. It wasn’t necessarily about agreeing with them, nor ignoring their shortcomings or any relevant problems. But it wasn’t about labelling and condemning them. It was about listening. Can we really say that we have a healthy “liberal” discourse today? Are we really listening to others?
In the past few weeks I have seen quite a few idealistic folks imploring their social media friends to join them in spreading “the word.” The main idea is that these are extraordinary times, and this requires extraordinary action.
I have not heard a single person inviting others to listen to those they disagree with.
In fact, in the age of social media personalisation algorithms, many people are simply unaware of what that “other” side thinks or feels. This is because their voices are never heard. Or, on the rare occasions they are heard, they are not listened to.
I have never identified with a particular political party, but I have definitely identified with classical liberal ideals. I still do. I am an advocate of freedom and equality, including equality of responsibility. But I would not call myself a “liberal” in the current political climate. What I see coming from liberal commentators in the media and liberal media today typically violates classical liberal ideals. There is almost no desire to listen or empathise, nor to create spaces for open communication. Typically, current liberal discourse dehumanises any individual who disagrees with any of the tenets of leftist progressivism, by labelling them fascists, racists, sexists and so on. This has driven a vast gap into our political discourse. And in doing so “liberalism” has shot itself in the foot.
We see fascists everywhere.
I am not going to outline all those liberal tenets here. But let me just say that even as it preaches tolerance of race, gender, sexual preference and so on, today’s “liberalism” is typically intolerant of ideological, philosophical and political diversity. It often crushes dissent via a culture of blame, shame and fear, reminiscent of Maoist China. Most problematic is that in many left-leaning media outlets, free space is given to individuals who are extremely intolerant and even violent in their dialogue. Probematically, these same outlets often censor any criticism of this intolerant dialogue.
Needless to say, this says nothing about the role that the political right is playing in all this. But if even “liberalism” cannot find the capacity to listen, we shouldn’t expect to find such a capacity elsewhere.
Still, there are indeed plenty of moderate thinkers on both sides of the political divide (which is not so black and white, at any rate). But they are increasingly marginalised. In part this is self-censorship, as the consequences for dissent within this system can be swift and permanent. The power in our universities and much of the media lies with the left, so the left has a special role to play in correcting the current imbalance.
Jonathan Haidt is a sensible and considered voice on how this tribal political division has come about. He argues that we do not have much “liberalism” today. He prefers the term “illiberalism,” because the left has betrayed its own ideological roots. He too invites us to begin listening. To be more humble.
What would happen if you took a week, or even a month away from your favourite media outlets and commentators? What if you stopped posting on the internet and instead tuned in to listen to those who hold different opinions from you? Perhaps you might find the monsters aren’t so monstrous. They might even turn out to be human.
This is exactly what I have done in the past six months or so, and it’s why I have posted far less on this site, and other social media outlets. I feel I have a much greater empathy with those I once disagreed with, as well as a greater appreciation for the kinds of criticisms that I once saw as “wrong.” Perhaps the young Asian man in the video below is someone you would never normally listen to. It might be a good start. But don’t let me limit your choices.