One of the best opinion pieces I’ve read this year was a friend’s Facebook post. It was 1,600 words long. He wrote about moral choices that have no clean solutions; about how sometimes a path of action must be “walked with tears”.
Among the thoughtful, appreciative comments that followed, I noticed one that began, “Couldn’t read all of this”. She went on to say she’d be removing him from her Facebook as words couldn’t express how strongly she disagreed with him. I began to lament the author’s loss of a friend — then wondered, wouldn’t a friend at least read to the end of a post? At least listen? At least try to understand?
I remembered that exchange the next day, when reading an article about a school board’s controversial decision to remove a Pulitzer Prize-winning book from its reading list. Karen Swallow Prior, a writer and academic, spoke of living in a time marked by polarisation and “impoverished abilities of interpretation”:
The polarization we are experiencing now is partly due to genuine disagreements, of course. But it is more often owing to our inability to correctly interpret one another, our words and ideas.
Prior said it was unsurprising a small US school district’s vote on a book — Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus — became big news: “Politicians, pundits and grifters on both sides of the political aisle have a lot to gain by whipping people into a frenzy”.
I think about news whipping Australians into a frenzy this past month: Grace Tame, Citipointe Christian College, the dramatic contest over — and ignominious withdrawal of — the Religious Discrimination Bill. I think about the people with something to gain and the people with something to lose; of the people who have already lost so much.
And I think about the children. Last week I heard ABC journalist Patricia Karvelas and LGBTQIA+ advocate Jacob Thomas discuss concerns that the unamended legislation designed to protect religious freedom would allow discrimination against trans and gender diverse children. Thomas said we must be mindful that when these issues are debated, in Parliament and beyond, those children are listening. What they hear has the potential to influence their sense of safety and of self, their perceptions of love, and prejudice. What they hear and how they internalise it could have “a huge impact” on their wellbeing and, at worst, put lives at risk.
This is obvious enough. What might be less obvious, is that it will depend not just on how we speak about ourselves, how we express our views, but how we speak about others — how we express their views. It’s easy, when seeking to justify our own position, to characterise opposing views in the most negative possible light, to get carried away from the facts, from the truth. If an LGBTQIA+ advocate does this to bolster their argument, they might inflict damage on the very people they are trying to defend and protect. The same goes for a Christian leader.
It might be tempting to assume that those who disagree with us don’t care about the people we are advocating for. But I am certain this is not always the case, and hopeful it is rarely the case. To assign and assume unloving — sometimes appalling — motives and intentions, and to voice these in the public square, may well strengthen an argument. But it may perpetuate untruth as well. All the while, the children are listening.
The children are watching, too. What do we want them to see? Adults who refuse to try and understand another’s point of view? Who care nothing for nuance? Who cut those who don’t agree with them out of their lives before they’ve even heard them out?
As she makes her case for reading, Karen Swallow Prior says books can challenge us, teach us to pay attention, ask questions, wonder, and think. The same might be said of listening. But dare we stop speaking and try? To be challenged, pay attention, wonder, think? To assume the best of our opponent, not the worst? To remember that life is messy? And when it seems clear-cut, to ask morequestions, not less?
What if we made a bit more effort to “correctly interpret one another, our words and ideas”? To teach kids through literature, sure, but through our example as well. The children are listening to us. The question is: are we listening to each other?
This article first appeared in ABC.