When I was growing up I used to believe that all debates are won by who could shout the loudest and out-talk the people they’re around, which is what led me to believe I sucked at them: I hated shouting matches, and while I felt they were wrong, I never had enough support to back me up. This belief never changed as I got older: Although taking a speech and debate course taught me more about how to support my arguments and choir taught me how to use my vocal chord, I still hated shouting matches and grew to believe it pointless to argue with people, as they often did not change my opinion.
I’d be lying if I said I liked them today: While watching a good debate such as the recent Nye Vs. Ham “Evolution Vs. Creationism” debate a few months back is both entertaining and stimulating, I hate getting into debates with anyone, whether online or in person. There’s always that discomfort, that questioning of possibly being wrong, that annoyance of the other person not understanding your argument. When I’m involved, regardless of if I am right, I end up often feeling like violating people in ways too graphic to describe.
One of the things I’ve recently come to realize, however, is that one of the mistakes I would make when I was younger is a mistake done so often today that no one is noticing it. It’s not surprising that it happens, especially as often as it does: Our country put “freedom of speech” as the first amendment for a big reason, and it wasn’t so that we’d be silent. People not only think and feel, they want to be heard, and we value those newspapers, TV sets, radios, CD’s, podcasts, movies, and every other visual and audial form of entertainment and expression that gets our point across. In a world full of so many ways to express ourselves, it’s no surprise that people are taking advantage of it.
I’m not bashing the first amendment, however – there is no fault in the amendment, as the right to express what we think, feel, and believe, no matter how crass, how cruel, or how irreverent or irrelevant, should never be taken away by anyone for any reason. Expression is not the problem, as we are master at it: If we can record it, write it, sing it, shout it, even paint or draw it – we make damn sure everyone notices.
Expression, however, is only one half of effective arguing, one part of co-working or working together, and one tool in the fight to fix problems. We even have rules on who can say or witness what – for example, we tend to keep kids out of R-Rated films when they don’t have an adult with, and we’ve kept the more-violent, more scary stuff to later at night. Swearing is less of an issue than it was when I was a kid, though many parents and adults do the respectful thing and watch what is around kids. Likewise, we respect grandma’s values and limit the cursing around her, which is something we don’t need.
What we’re not doing, whether we realize it or not, is listening – and the worst part is how it’s catching up.
Before you slam me with posts about how you’re the perfect listener, consider the last time you actually paid attention to an argument you disagreed with. Were you really listening to them word-for word, giving them the full benefit of communication by letting them speak and thinking about all that they had to say? Or were you thinking about all of the ways to counter-argue what they had to say, finding the holes in their logic, thinking about where you saw that quote or news story that backed your claim?
Many of the people I see communicating today – whether on the news/in the press, online or in person – aren’t really communicating. They’re speaking, but many of them are like the shouters I so desperately wanted to out-shout years ago.
As a nation, we’re not known to compromise – which has a lot of good values to it, especially in the face of those who’d seek to harm others. Sometimes we’re right to stand our ground, to hold up and not fold in an argument, and to be known for that in the right situations is a beautiful thing. However, most of the time we should be like that is when the opponent is from the outside, such as terrorist groups or countries bent on starting World War III. We really shouldn’t be like that to our neighbors, to our friends and family, to everyone in this country who does not share the same views and opinions as our own.
We’re also quick to blame the problem – “they’re not doing it, why should I?,” which could be argued against Democrats, Republicans, Tea Party-ers, Independents, Grannies, Adults, Factory workers, Rich, poor, you name it. “It’s their fault, not mine.”
The biggest problem we have in America is not gun control. It’s not abortion, gay rights, or the death penalty. It’s not marijuana or immigrant legalization issues, or even the jobless and poor. These problems are all symptoms of a much larger problem.
The problem we need to fix, before we worry about every other problem we have, whether we’re the elected officials working to do the job we’re elected to do or the ordinary, average Joe Q. Citizen who’s not paid anything for our opinions, is our ability to listen, to respect, and to have compassion for the problems we face today. We need to be reasonable, to be able to think about a larger picture, one that is beyond the scopes of our own worlds – a dying art lost in our world today.
As long as we keep our shouting matches up, we’re never going to progress. We’ll continue to have to worry about how that shooter got those weapons to shoot up that public place, or about the drug problems we have, or the joblessness, or the right to marry. Our kids won’t get any smarter – if anything, they’ll only continue to get dumber. And, just so we’re clear, our presidents won’t get any better – look at the track record since before Reagan. (I wish I could give a specific president, but Carter was president when I was born, making Reagan the first president I was alive for a full term.)
If any of us want to really fix America, the first thing all of us need to do is to shut up and listen. that’s the only way we’re ever going to make real progress.