Seek First to Understand: Can Public Discourse Be Saved?
We don’t understand each other.
And I’m not sure how hard we’re trying.
This is not a post about athletes or anthems, flags or protests. *Take a deep breath.* This is about how we talk— or more accurately— how we listen to one another.
Years ago, Stephen Covey wrote in his ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, we should ‘seek first to understand, and then to be understood’. So in the effort to aid our understanding of one another, I’d like to offer some thoughts on how controversial and heated topics can become a pathway into empathy, and lead to better public discourse. I want to reflect for a moment on emotions, symbols, and language.
I. Emotions. We often think emotions are the problem. “Don’t be so emotional,” we say. “Just face the facts and forget your feelings.” We think this is how to “grow up”, as if the coldly logical Dr. Spock were the epitome of maturity.
But emotions are not flaws. They are part of the glory of being made in the image of God. The problem is not that we are “emotional”; the problem is that we do not know how to pay attention to our emotions.
Emotions, as Bob Roberts from Baylor has argued, are a mode of perception. They are a way of seeing the world based on what we care about. Or as my friend Adam Pelsar who teaches at the Air Force Academy says, emotions are the “eyes of our heart”.
When you’re angry, it’s because something that you care about is being obstructed. When you’re afraid, it’s because something you care about is being threatened. When you’re sad, it’s because something you care about has been lost.
Two people could have very different reactions to a rainy day. One could be sad, the other could be relieved. Rather than arguing by trying to convince each other that they should not feel what they feel, they could learn about the other by asking about what their emotion is saying. Perhaps the one who is sad about rain was hoping to go on a hike with their friend. Maybe the one who is relieved lived through a forest fire and was hoping for more moisture. You see, our emotions can be a way into understanding each other if only we’d stop being shocked or offended when someone responds to a situation with a different emotion than the one we’re feeling.
What if when we saw someone get emotional about something, or read an outburst on Facebook, we don’t respond with equal intensity to counter them? What if we learn to ask instead, “Tell me what are you most concerned about here?” “Help me understand why is this so important to you?”
Emotions can be a gateway into intimacy. If we learn to be attentive to our emotions, they can help us learn about ourselves. And better yet: they can help us gain empathy for each other.
II. Symbols. Consider how symbols work. A symbol is not a code. A code has only one referent; a symbol has many. So what the flag means to one is not what it means to another. What the symbolic act of kneeling means for one is not what it means to another. That’s just how symbols work. And frankly, it’s what gives symbols their power. They are incredibly malleable and portable. They can easily be imported into very different contexts.
But this means that we cannot evaluate another’s symbolic act solely based on what that act symbolizes to us; we have to ask what it symbolized to them. When sociologists debate the meaning of ritualized acts, the focus is often on who determines the meaning. Is the meaning of an act pre-encoded in, or does it depend on the performer? Or, more confusing yet, does the meaning of a ritual depend on the impressions of the viewer? No matter how post-modern our perspective, the general sense is that the performer of a ritual has the most say about what the act means.
So if you want to know what the flag means to people who stand and salute, ask them what meaning they are assigning to their act of standing. And if you want to know what the act of kneeling in the anthem means to those who kneel, ask them. I know people in our congregation who have different perspectives on this. I said in a recent sermon that those who have sacrificed and served and suffered loss like the men and women in our military have will have a deeper understanding of allegiance and of the flag than those who haven’t. I also said in a different sermon that many of us have no way of comprehending the depth of the impact of racism, particularly toward African-Americans, in our country– from the slave trade to segregation, from redline laws and institutionalized bias. I am learning to listen and to give voice to the people in our congregation who identify with each of these perspectives. Both groups have something profound that they’re trying to communicate. Are we listening?
Speaking of listening…
III. Language. Stanley Hauerwas, the great theologian/ethicist, said that we can only act in the world that we see, and that we shape the world we see by the words we say. So, if you call a fetus a ‘pregnancy’, you would be more open to ‘terminating’ it. But if you call it a baby in the womb, you would never think of taking a life. Words matter.
Words in our public discourse matter not just because they have the power to wound or to heal— though, please God, help us pay more attention to that too! Words matter because they show us how we are seeing the world. They lead to how we act in the world.
What if we listened— really listened— to each other’s words? What if when someone says that they experience systemic racial injustice, we take the time to imagine the world that they see? What if when someone says they feel disrespected by an athlete who kneels, that their service and sacrifice has been trivialized, we listen to those words? Injustice. Sacrifice. Disrespect. Words matter.
Words can show us one another’s worlds. They can help us enter each other’s stories, feel each other’s pain.
But words can only do this if we listen. And if we allow our listening to provoke a holy curiosity.
Tell me, what is it like to fear being pulled over when you’ve done nothing wrong?
Tell me, what is it like to lose a friend in battle and to witness the flag being folded and presented to their grieving widow at his grave?
Let the power of words help us enter each other’s worlds.
Friends, the world is not yet aflame with strife. May God grant us the grace to use emotions, symbols, and language as a way to listen with more empathy that we might gain more understanding. Who can say, but we just might save public discourse yet.