Are you listening or are you hearing?

Image by Thomas Wolter from Pixabay

Last fall I met a published writer who impressed me with his knowledge, his approachability, and his friendliness. While the main genre that he writes in isn’t my thing, I bought an anthology he was in and I was reasonably impressed with his skills.  He reached out to me on Facebook and friended me. 

Nice! I enjoy building community.

Over the last few months we occasionally traded ideas on Facebook about the immigration debate. They weren’t long treatises on the subject, but there was enough interaction to agree that there was, and continues to be, a humanitarian issue at the southern border of the United States (at least I think he agreed.) We differed on how that situation should be handled. The discourse was brief, but courteous, at last I thought it was. I believe we had the same goal, we just differed as to the proper course of action.

I hadn’t heard from him in a while, so I went looking for him. As it turns out, he decided to terminate our Facebook friendship without my knowledge.

Unfriending handled in this way is such a weird thing. Why do it when you can avoid hurt feelings and just mute the person?  Instead, this man chose to make a statement. “Because we disagree on a small part of one political issue, I want nothing more to do with you.”  I have always believed someone who unfriends me, particularly over political issues, is doing me a favor. It’s the trash taking itself out.

During the recent Supreme Court Nominee debacle, I was flamed out of a group for asking a question. I was stormed with dozens of responses, told I was ridiculous, and commanded to perform physically impossible sex acts.  For asking a question. Not taking a position, but for asking a question. The trash took itself out, and my life went on without my even blinking an eye.

But this one bothers me a bit. We writers are supposed to love having divergent points of view. We seek them out so we can build them into our works. We lay out the facts and let the reader come to their own conclusion rather than risk the danger of getting preachy.  Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t have a point of view.  But to develop your point of view, you need to inspect your ideas. Test them and make sure they hold up, and then learn how best to communicate them by engaging with people on the other side.

We have to be willing to talk to people who disagree with us, and as others have bemoaned, these days we talk AT people; we don’t talk TO them.  We need start listening again. Listen not just so you can talk, but so that you can hear. Hear their pain, their joys, their concerns, their reasons. This is nothing more than the very basics of research we would do into our characters. Why are we more interested in getting our characters right than we are getting our friends and neighbors right? For several years now, I had a neighbor who is a Mexican immigrant. I’d talk to him about the issue, and I found his insights fascinating. They helped shape my own views. But that only happened I listened to hear him rather than to feed my own confirmation bias.

As I look around the writing community today, I see a homogeneity of viewpoints that scares me.  I’m not scared because I disagree, I’m scared because we’re not reaching out to people different than us with the intent both to listen, hear and grow.  We’re not welcoming “other” people into our community to interact and become stronger through our diversity. It’s easier to name call and feel righteous than it is to be challenged.

We say “We’re inclusive! Except you. You’re not welcome.” “We’re loving! Except you. You can go f*** yourself.” “We want all points of view! Except yours. You deserve to be silenced into submission.”

We writers need to be better than this.  We need to be the voice of inclusivity and social acceptance of ALL PEOPLE. Which means we need to lead the way in reaching out to others. We need to not only share our points of view, but we need to be open to hearing other divergent points of view.

With a simple “unfriend” button, that author has stopped the flow of ideas, and of communication. He will never hear me again. I will never hear him again. He has denied both of us the chance to learn and grow as people who want to help shape the world.

So let me challenge you with something to help change this. Sometime this week, go visit a place with which you disagree, but leave all your personal biases at home.  Go to the house of worship of a different faith (or any faith if you aren’t particularly spiritual).  Go to an event sponsored by someone on the other side of one of your belief systems. Listen to them. Learn about their hopes and fears, their dreams and nightmares. Ask questions, be a listener.  Walk a mile in their shoes.

It will make you a better writer. It will make you a better person. It might even start to change the world.

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