Today, people seem to think that they must speak up if they feel that something violates their values. I associate that with a book and a college course called Giving Voice to Values, which has trained many college students on how to speak up for what they believe. But it’s moved beyond just the few thousand people who took that course; it has permeated our culture. It seems that lots of people feel that they must speak up whenever they disagree.
But the problem is that too many people start formulating their rebuttal before they’ve really listened to what the person is saying. And I believe it’s unethical not to understand the other person and why they believe what they do before you talk. Why? Because instead of paying attention to the other person, instead of being curious and wanting to learn and grow, we make assumptions. And we all know what the danger of making assumptions is.
But we are blind to the fact that this is what we’re doing.
I see three problems with just spouting off what you believe without trying to understand the other person.
First, you treat the other person like they aren’t a person themselves, like they’re just what they say. You “other” them. You negate their humanity. That hurts them—and it also hurts us. If you’re concerned about racial equity, think about how you would feel if someone did that to a person of color. You would be upset that they weren’t considering the other person’s perspective and their lived experience. Why should anyone else be treated any differently? That’s hypocrisy.
Here’s an example of how it hurts the other person. A conservative friend of mine has told me about the multiple encounters she’s had with people who disagree with her politically who feel compelled to tell her so. Here’s the effect in her words from an email she sent me: “Being often called a cult follower and equated to the vanishingly small group of extremists who headed the charge up the Capitol steps and breaking through the windows ... is wearing pretty thin on me. And I do not have the civilized (conversation) history that I have with you ... with some others who lump me in. So, with them, I just zip my mouth, disengage and stay away, mostly …”
Second, it hurts us because we lose the benefit of connecting with others. The above email came to me after I learned she was mad at something I wrote. Well, it turns out that it wasn’t what I wrote so much as it was the effect of my words on top of all the things other people had said. If we hadn’t worked to restore the relationship after that misunderstanding, I would have lost the connection with this person, a long-time friend. We have a history that goes deep, and we love each other. I don’t want to lose that. She’s part of the fabric of my life. I can’t just replace her; it would leave a hole.
The value of that connection goes beyond one’s individual history. I learned in seminary about the value of presence. For example, sitting vigil with someone who is ill or dying is a practice rooted in the value of presence. Just being with someone, not talking, just sitting, calms us down. It lowers the heart rate, slows down the breathing. We humans like being with other humans in person, and it shows up in our physiology.
Connections come in other ways, too. After giving birth, I had a transcendent moment, where I felt as one with all women who have given birth. It didn’t last a long time, but I still remember that many years later. It changed me. That feeling of transcendence is a spiritual awakening.
But we lose that connection and the value of that connection and the possibility of transcendence when we reject people who disagree with us. We rip apart the fabric of our lives when we reject them, without a hearing. We hurt ourselves.
Third, we lose the ability to grow and learn. When we automatically reject what those we disagree with say, we stay stuck. Stuck within ourselves, within our own ability and our own reality. We don’t expand our horizons and we don’t learn anything. I once heard Jonathan Haidt summarize it as “We become stupid.”
We have lots of difficult problems to solve in this world, and we need different perspectives in order to solve them. We should be collecting the various ideas and learning from them, not rejecting them before considering them. Diversity of thought is valuable.
So, I will repeat myself: It is unethical to not try to understand the person you disagree with. It hurts them, it hurts you, and it hurts the world. Let’s commit to changing.