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Open Our Ears: Listening for a Change
By Dan Brook
The writer Louise Erdrich once wondered how the world would be different if we thought of listening as a political act. I also wonder how the world would be different if we thought of political acts as spiritual acts. The central statement of Judaism is the Sh’ma, the Listen: Sh’ma Yisrael, YHVH Elokaynu, YHVH Echad, reminding us to recognize the Oneness that pervades our Being and Reality (despite its often fractured appearance).
Further, Jewish mysticism, or Kabala, teaches us that not only are we shomrei adamah for tikkun olam, partners in the creation, healing, and transforming of the world, but that we continually re-create the world and can continually receive its wonders, wildness, and wisdom each moment. We can read and study the Written Law (Torah) and the Oral Law (Talmud), but we have to receive and listen to the Silent Law (kabalah). If we are receptive to it, the Silent Torah teaches that a way of wisdom is listening to ourselves as well as others and that wisdom is a way to peace. The opposite of listening, Rabbi Arthur Waskow teaches, is arrogance.
All good organizers as well as good counselors, therapists, rabbis and other clergy, attorneys, students, teachers, writers, spiritual seekers, politicians, parents, friends, lovers, and others know well that listening, indeed active listening, and what Jewish author and counselor Kim Chernin calls “generous listening”, is key to success.
Through active listening, which is comprised of both verbal and physical cues that indicate attentive listening and accurate understanding of another person’s points and perspective, we can accomplish many goals. Some of these include learning about others and ourselves, validating another person as a person (even without necessarily validating their ideas), creating an arena for valuable feedback, building a social relationship (even an ephemeral one), and ultimately being able to potentially change that person’s mind on a particular issue or, more importantly, change that person’s world view. One of the best ways to persuade others is with your ears, former Secretary of State Dean Rusk advises, that is, ”by listening to them”.
Good organizers and others also know that we have to go where people are, both literally and metaphorically, and speak the language, again both literally and metaphorically, going to those with whom we wish to communicate and persuade. That doesn’t mean that we should violate our principles or compromise our values; we shouldn’t. Neither does that mean we should be manipulative, condescending, or patronizing; we shouldn’t. None of this would be good ethically or ultimately effective politically.
If we have the interest and take the time to find out, for example, that a person’s hobby is growing tomatoes in their yard, we should want to and be able to talk about tomatoes, while employing our sociological imaginations, dialectically linking personal issues with social problems, individual constraints with societal structures, tomatoes with political economy.
We might discuss, for instance, the variety of uses for tomatoes, the potential health benefits of tomatoes, the choice between growing versus buying, the implications of subsistence versus surplus farming, the risks of chemical agriculture and the possibilities and benefits of organic agriculture, the threats from genetic engineering, the realities of globalization and corporate concentration in the seed, distribution, and retail industries, the decline of tomato and other species, how Reagan characterized ketchup as a vegetable for school kids, how the first Bush publicly declared his immature dislike of another vegetable (broccoli), while the second Bush administration defined frozen French fries as “fresh vegetables”, in addition to issues of water, soil, land, energy, farms, costs, health, ecology, and the control over and conservation of vital resources. And this is not an exhaustive list. Needless to say, we should be able to do this with most any subject and with most any person.
Personalizing and customizing abstract and complex issues is most often what motivates people much more than ideological sloganeering, not to mention much more so than insults, rants, statistics, and other techniques that tend to make and leave people defensive, confused, or numb and frequently angry and antagonistic too.
By going to people where they are, by meeting them where they’re at, by actively and eloquently listening, by speaking their language, and by being able to resonate with what’s resonant in them, we create the social bonds necessary to most effectively teach and learn, to constructively critique and provide alternatives, to energize and awaken, as well as to build the individual and collective capacity and the social and political infrastructure necessary for potential future action.
Further, having discussions with people about politics is also a good way to practice listening and speaking skills, to clarify one’s points and arguments, to get more familiar with both typical and unusual responses, to hone one’s debating dexterity, and of course to make known and spread one’s (progressive) perspective.
Of course, how we say things, and how we present our information and perspective, is vital. In the US, we might want to use the metaphors and frames of independence, freedom, equal protection and equal opportunity, justice, basic fairness, fair play, leveling the playing field, common good, progress, rights, democracy, security, innovation, improvement, health, happiness, strength in numbers, thinking outside the box, community, Main Street, and others in this vein, using them in genuine ways and in expansive ways, not in the more typically cynical and Orwellian ways. Just as the Zapatistas effectively draw upon a powerful figure from Mexican revolutionary history, we need to do likewise. For better or worse, we don’t have an American Zapata, but there are plenty of other melodic tunes in our cultural juke boxes and mp3 players. We just need to listen.
We also need to realize that learning is always a cumulative process, and so while whatever we may say to any given person, at any given time, may not have any immediate discernable effect, it may in fact sometimes have very positive consequences which will manifest at a later time, even if we may be unaware of it. Teachers already know that; everyday political activists need to recognize this truism as well.
Paradigms shift slowly, but they do shift. Up until a tipping point, it may appear as if the dominant beliefs in society are not budging at all, yet when a tipping point is finally reached, paradigms seem to change in the wink of an eye. Some will later refer to this as spontaneous change, but they would be missing all the political activity: all the agitating, all the educating, all the organizing, all the talking and all the listening, as well as everything else, that had been going on with diligence, determination, and dedication for years.
We may or may not be able to change any given person’s mind on a particular issue, including our own, but we can change the world if we persevere. As Hillel continually challenges us, if not now, when? Ultimately, the prophet Isaiah beseeches us to listen that you may live and be more alive to the changes all around. Shhh. Sh’ma.
Let’s listen for a change!
Dan Brook, Ph.D., is a teacher and also a trained community mediator. He can be contacted via Brook@california.com or through CyberBrook's ThinkLinks www.brook.com/cyberbrook.
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