Can We Talk?
Rodney King asked America an excellent question: “Why can’t we all just get along?”
In the classic scene from the movie Cool Hand Luke, Strother Martin probably gave the most accurate possible response to that question when he famously said, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
Why is it so difficult for Americans to talk with each other?
My best guess is that roughly half of us don’t care what the other half think or want, or more importantly, what motivates the other half of America to want the things they want. Too many of us look at American politics like people used to look at their favorite sports team. We’ve become less patriotic, less tolerant, and more judgmental.
More than a decade ago, I became a professional writer, sort of by accident. I was helping a friend develop a business plan for a new company he was starting by crunching some numbers in a spreadsheet, with the television tuned to Comedy Central and playing in the background because crunching numbers in spreadsheets doesn’t exactly require intense concentration during the initial formatting and column labeling of projected balance sheets and income statements. The Colbert Report was playing in the background, and Stephen Colbert was interviewing renowned scientist Richard Dawkins for his book, The God Delusion, which Dawkins was promoting at the time. When Dawkins conceded that the human body was more complex than a computer I wasn’t terribly surprised, because I had been a software developer for twenty years at the time.
I knew enough about the human body to understand that it was considerably more complex than the primary tool of my trade. Much of what I had learned was through trial and error. For example, when I thanked my orthopedic surgeon for pinning together my broken finger and “fixing” it, he corrected my thinking by explaining that he hadn’t actually done the hardest part -- my body healed itself. This brilliant, accomplished doctor renowned for pioneering new surgical techniques caused me to see the world and my own sense of self-importance with a healthy dose of humility because I was listening when he said those words.
When Professor Dawkins asserted as an academic claim that the human body was not intelligently designed, my instincts screamed he was wrong, but I didn’t know enough about science to carry on an intelligent conversation with him or anybody else. So I began reading every book in the library I could find on biology, chemistry, and physics related to the origin of the universe and the origin of life, because if the famous scientist was correct (and he is widely regarded as an expert on the subject of evolutionary biology) I would look like an idiot for making an argument from ignorance.
A couple of years and four hundred pages of research notes later, I realized that those notes contained enough material for my first book, titled Divine Evolution.
When I read his books, I couldn’t help but note that Richard Dawkins frequently either stated or implied that belief in special creation was absurd because of the evidence that supports Charles Darwin’s theory, called natural selection. The obvious problem with his argument is that before evolution ever becomes possible, creation has already occurred, and the only real question to be asked is whether God or good luck deserves the credit for the universe and origin of life.
But then I watched as Dawkins encouraged his fellow atheists to mock and ridicule religious believers rather than engaging them in conversation and realized that seeking a dialog with such a close-minded, obnoxious person was going to be an exercise in futility, unworthy of wasting my time, not his. I also realized that reading The God Delusion and The Origin of Species hadn’t changed my mind about the existence of God, and probably wouldn’t change the mind of anyone else not actively seeking an excuse to become an atheist. At worst, they might create a few doubts in the minds of people with an unsophisticated concept and definition of a creator God.
After my first book was published I became more active on social media, looking to build an audience for my work. It didn’t take long for me to learn which topics were most controversial (religion, abortion, evolution, and politics, in that order) and the most effective way to establish some sort of common ground with someone who disagrees with pretty much everything you say (humor.) Over the years I’ve made “virtual” friends on social media with gays, transgender people, atheists, socialists and, of course, fellow theists and conservatives.
My rules of engagement are rather simple and straightforward: I’m willing to try friendship with anybody, because I’m genuinely curious about why people who might disagree with me think the way they do. I offer a virtual friendship on social media with my willingness to listen to their opinions, and I will do my best to understand the other person’s point-of-view. The only condition is that he or she reciprocates and listens when it is my turn to speak.
If I’m only interested in talking but never willing to listen, what does that accomplish? Even people deemed qualified to lecture on a given subject must listen to questions in order to answer them. And why should anyone be afraid of another person’s thoughts and opinions? My gay friends know that after I’ve listened to their explanations of why they believe they were born, I’m likely to ask something like, “What about bisexuals, if sexuality doesn’t involve choice?”
My transgender friends know that when they point out that some people can’t help being “transgender” because they were born hermaphrodites, I’m very likely to cite in response statistical evidence which shows the vast majority of people claiming to suffer from gender dysphoria were not born with both male and female sexual characteristics. The truth matters.
The problem is that too many members of society today (more liberals than conservatives in my experience) are simply unwilling to listen to an opposing viewpoint, because they don’t care about truth. They only want to silence their intellectual counterparts. For example, Bill Nye insanely suggested that skeptics of “climate change” should face criminal charges and prison sentences for daring to question the orthodoxy of climate change. An angry liberal student recently attempted to shut down Stephen Crowder’s effort to have an open conversation about abortion because the protestor didn’t want to discuss the issue or other people to discuss it, either.
He’s not alone in his belief that other people aren’t entitled to have a dissenting opinion; shortly after joining Twitter, I read an interview with a writer who said in a magazine interview that he’d asked a number of pro-life advocates the same ridiculous hypothetical question about choosing between the life of a child and a canister of frozen embryos, bragging that no one had been to give him the “correct” answer. Because I foolishly believed his claim, I attempted to establish a dialog with this writer. After a very brief and rather rude, profanity-laced exchange, this person suddenly declared that I was not allowed to participate in the public conversation about abortion. Soon thereafter I was apparently shadow-banned by Twitter and so I simply deleted my account.
Professional editors are welcome to criticize and censor my work. Jack Dorsey is not. Can we talk? I guess that depends.
Are you willing to listen?
Graphic credit: Max Pixel
John Leonard is a writer and editor. He may be contacted through his website at southernprose.com