Today, I’d like to start with a quote from A Director Prepares, by Anne Bogart:
"What is culture? I believe that culture is shared experience. And it is constantly shifting. Ideas, in fact, are among the most contagious aspects of human culture. Imagine a huge field on a cold winter night. Scattered around the field are blazing fires, each with a group of people huddled close to stay warm. The fires represent shared experience, or the culture, of each group gathered around each fire. Imagine that someone stands up and walks across the cold, dark, windy field towards a different group gathered around another fire. This act of strength represents cultural exchange. And this is how ideas scatter."
Years ago, when I was a kid and more interested in building meta-forts than metaphors, it seems that people were braver and would walk across this field of culture more frequently. Exchange of ideas is healthy for any society; suppression of thought and ideas is very dangerous. Social media is a very apt metaphor for our country and our liberties. We see the ability to express ourselves openly and at any time as a great freedom. In many ways, it is. Censorship of social media would undoubtedly be a violation of our rights, as we see in other nations around the world. But the Opposite, unlimited tweets and Facebook posts, doesn't make us free either. Freedom, as truth always does, lies in the Balance between these Opposites.
Let's think for a moment, for simplicity, that each national news organization represents a single Campfire. A generation ago, we had a handful of major networks and national publications: NBC, CBS, ABC, USA Today, the Washington Post, the New York Times, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and so on. Maybe the number was a dozen, maybe two dozen, but low enough that you can probably imagine a wide open field with so many Campfires. Imagine that field in 2020. Add in social media, cable news, and all of the publications that receive national attention because they're widely shared. How much fire do you see? Is it comforting or frightening? Do you feel better informed now than you used to? Has more information made us smarter on the whole?
When I picture 2020, I don’t see glowing Campfires that keep us warm. I see raging bonfires that prevent us from seeing across the field. I believe that we have stopped walking from fire to fire as frequently. When we see an idea that threatens us, or a crowd around a fire that looks suspicious, we no longer brave the walk to engage with this group. Instead, we use our 240 characters, our filters, our social media accounts, our endless “free” kindling and simply build a new fire, one that seems more comforting, warm, familiar. Sometimes this might be necessary; fire can keep people safe, after all. But sooner or later, our culture is engulfed in flames. Social media and cable news have set fire to our ideas. We all have the ability to curate our information intake, but it hasn’t made us better informed. It makes us more narrow-minded, more susceptible to confirmation bias, and therefore susceptible to bad information.
The first of my Tools to share with you is Listening. I haven't crossed this field enough in recent years, but I pledge to do so more often in the coming months. Like so many of us, I surround myself with friends and family who I mostly agree with. This is human nature - we desire safety above all else. The fires that glow around me are indeed comforting, warm and familiar. I don't like to get burned. But I will be braver and stronger going forward. I will make an effort to seek out ideas different from mine. I'm so sick of reading the Post and the Times and listening to NPR. I’m sick of sitting in my echo chamber and complaining about how divisive Our President is when I have let him divide me from those I don’t always agree with. He is responsible for that division, but we are responsible, too.
So how do we listen more effectively? What is listening, true Listening? When I say capital-L Listening, I think what I really mean is Hearing. In the words of the man whose name is at the top of this page, "listening is automatic. Hearing is something that I take in with my soul." Not sure I can put it much better than that, but I’ll give it a shot.
There's an episode of Succession where my favorite characters (Tom and Greg) realize the media company they work for has a problem. They're planning to unveil a new slogan, which reads 'We're Listening.' As Greg astutely points out though, Waystar Royco actually *is* listening to and recording their customers through Alexa-style products, and he's worried this slogan might alarm loyal consumers. So they start pitching new ideas, and eventually make a great suggestion: 'We Hear You.' Think about those two slogans: ‘We’re Listening’ and ‘We Hear You.’ Do they mean anything different to you? To me, the first sounds like something that you do with your ears, the second is something you do with your whole self. Of course, the bumbling duo can’t settle on the subtle but effective pivot; they land on the much clunkier, much worse slogan of “We Hear for You.” Ugh.
No one else can Hear for you. Journalists may find the facts, and friends may read, watch and listen to the day’s news and report it back to us. But none of those Good People can Hear for us. Only we choose to Hear what others tell us, and make no mistake: it is a choice. So my challenge for myself and for you isn’t to simply listen to the endless disagreements present in our society. Try to truly Hear them. When having a conversation with someone, don’t just wait for your turn to talk and deliver your rebuttal. Take a deep breath while they speak.
Truly. Just breathe.
Focus on the words they’re saying. Look the person you’re speaking with in the eye if you can. Try to internalize what’s being said and to empathize with whoever you're interacting with. Why do they feel the way they feel? How do their personal experiences influence their point of view? Have they experienced something different than you or I have (note: the answer to this question is always yes)? If so, maybe we should Hear them out.
There are not two sides in this country. That type of rhetoric is harmful and divisive. There are two major political parties, and the parties are bitterly opposed right now, but that doesn’t encompass our nation. It's been more than 50 years since at least 60% of Americans aged 18+ voted in a presidential election. More than 100 million people old enough didn’t vote in 2016. Which side are they on? Why do we have to pick sides at all? If I may disagree with Our President, there are not "very fine people on both sides.” I reject this not because it’s sympathetic toward white supremacists, but because I reject the notion of "both sides" at all. There are Good People on all sides, all around us, huddled around their fires for safety. I See You. I choose to invite all of you into this Dialogue. If you walk across this shuddering field of culture and ideas, I promise that I’ll Hear You. And if you don't want to brave the cold to meet me halfway, I'll make the full walk myself. After all, I have a pretty high tolerance for cold.
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