Learning to listen

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There were many reasons to enjoy the 2010 University of Michigan commencement last Saturday. My little brother, the baby of the family, stood in the sea of black-robed graduates. An English/Creative Writing major, chosen to address his fellow students, spoke more convincingly than the governor. The rain from that morning held off throughout the ceremony. And, of course, the guest speaker was hard to beat.

Obama joined a long line of presidents who have spoken at the University of Michigan. Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, John F. Kennedy, and Gerald Ford preceded him; excerpts from each of these men’s fine speeches played on a big screen before Obama took the stage. The excitement in the stadium was palpable, maybe because everyone was so happy to have made it through the airport-level security checkpoints at the Big House. Even though I forgot to bring my camera, and even though my little brother misunderstood my request to snap pictures of Obama and instead sent me close-up shots of him and his roommate, smiling in their graduation garb, I absorbed and fully appreciated the moment.

I’d like to relay my favorite excerpt from Obama’s speech:

“These arguments we’re having over government and health care and war and taxes — these are serious arguments.  They should arouse people’s passions, and it’s important for everybody to join in the debate, with all the vigor that the maintenance of a free people requires.

But we can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down.  You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it.  You can question somebody’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism.  Throwing around phrases like “socialists” and “Soviet-style takeover” and “fascist” and “right-wing nut” — that may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, our political opponents, to authoritarian, even murderous regimes.

The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise.  It undermines democratic deliberation.  It prevents learning . . . It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out.  It robs us of a rational and serious debate, the one we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation.  It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.

So what do we do?  As I found out after a year in the White House, changing this type of politics is not easy.  And part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents:  Treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect. . .

If we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from.

Now, this requires us to agree on a certain set of facts to debate from.  That’s why we need a vibrant and thriving news business that is separate from opinion makers and talking heads. That’s why we need an educated citizenry that values hard evidence and not just assertion.  As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously once said, “Everybody is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

 

Still, if you’re somebody who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while.  If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website.  It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed.  But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship.  It is essential for our democracy.

And so, too, is the practice of engaging in different experiences with different kinds of people.  I look out at this class and I realize for four years at Michigan you have been exposed to diverse thinkers and scholars, professors and students.  Don’t narrow that broad intellectual exposure just because you’re leaving here.  Instead, seek to expand it.  If you grew up in a big city, spend some time with somebody who grew up in a rural town.  If you find yourself only hanging around with people of your own race or ethnicity or religion, include people in your circle who have different backgrounds and life experiences.  You’ll learn what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, and in the process, you will help to make this democracy work.”

Of course, as Obama was making this non-partisan plea for “civility in our public debate,” Sarah Palin was down the road in Clarkston, Michigan, where she mocked the “hopey, changey stuff” Obama advocated during his election, as well as the “lamestream media” that distort everything she says. But that’s another story.

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