Update: Good news! One on one conversation brought the temperature back to normal. 1/17/2020
I’m going to forward this blog post to several people who were present at a meeting I attended this morning. If I don’t get a bunch of comments from that group, I’m really going to wonder about the state of the world. I tend to irritate people. I even irritate my friends. I do this without being deliberate, but I have to admit that today I was just a tiny bit deliberate.
So, yes, I’m a piece of work. But, hey, so are you. I’ll describe today’s meeting, then talk a bit about options for the future. Twice a month, I attend a meeting of Secular Humanists at my retirement home. Lots of people don’t like the name, but we can never agree on a different one, so it sticks. Almost everyone I’ve talked to about these meetings would like something to be different: different topics, different format; different rules for discussion. But, again, we don’t agree, so it is what it is. And we keep coming back, so our leaders must be doing something right.
Most often, we see a video of one or more speakers, then we get to respond to what we saw and heard. Today’s video was ancient: Steven Pinker talking about his book, The Blank Slate. He made the point in many ways that part of what shapes us is our genetics. He did say that we are also shaped by nurture and culture. This pretty much aligns with my thinking: bio-psycho-social, we are the product of all three.
As is always the case, comments varied from on target to off the wall, on target but too wordy, probably on target but murky. Usually, we’re not angry or confrontational, but I’ll confess that I notice if men are given more time and more opportunities to speak than women. Being a woman with opinions, I am likely to try to even the score. When I speak, I generally talk about the topic of the day, but today I talked about how we listen and respond to the topic. And that is how I came to be called “a piece of work.”
I am seriously interested in efforts to improve our collective ability to find common ground rather than stake out our differences. Quite a few scholars are working on this; some are trying to create situations where people can practice listening and noticing their personal reactions to comments others have made, and gradually learning to phrase responses in ways that deescalate rather than escalate confrontation. Today, I commented that some members of our group seemed to have been triggered by Pinker, then I was accused of doing what I’d seen in others (being triggered, I guess). OK.
In fairness, several members of this group are accomplished academics; I’m “just” a retired grade school teacher. (Yes, I think that factors into the group dynamics.) I could be wrong, but I think many academics have had to stake out territory and defend it in order to gain tenure, so deep listening may not be something they have much experience with. In reality, deep listening is not something many of us have experience with. But I’m really intrigued by the concept.
Three years ago, in the spring after Trump’s election, one member of our group, hoping to enable us to listen better, talked about learning to “think like an owl.” I loved that phrase, by which he meant that we should listen to the entirety of what someone says, mull it over for a time, keep what is useful and let go of what isn’t. The analogy was that an owl takes an entire critter into its mouth, sorts out the nutritious bits, and spits out the bones in the form of an “owl pellet.” (These are fabulous tools for elementary science teachers, just so you know.)
I generally don’t like formal debates, or even the contrived “debates” that occur during campaign season, because the point is to win! to score points! but not to find areas of agreement, or areas that need further examination and contemplation. I’m desperate for “not controversy,” for problem solving, for learning from our mistakes and fine tuning efforts to make the world better. Do we need to halt everything and practice listening before we get back to work on saving the world? I’ll trust you to tell me.
In a future post, I’ll link to some of my preferred web sources for thoughtful writing and dialogue. If you have favorites to recommend, please share.