Listening has become a lost art

I’ve been watching the media circus surrounding Wilfrid Laurier University recently, being appalled, amused and amazed in equal proportions. That’s because the debate is so intensely relevant to modern life it’s almost a caricature.

Since I did both my undergraduate and graduate work at Laurier, I can’t say I’m unbiased about this issue, which has lessons everyone can learn from. I can’t say the situation totally surprises me, since I can recollect at least one instance where something similar, but distinctly more minor happened. However, the atmosphere at the university sounds like an, ahem, radical departure from what I remember.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with the incident involving Lindsay Shepherd, let me provide a quick recap. Shepherd, a graduate student at Laurier, is a teaching assistant in the communications department. While teaching a class that discussed how grammar and language can be controversial, she aired a segment of an interview featuring Jordan Peterson, a leading opponent of the idea that pronouns should be modified to suit “transgender” and “non-binary” people.

At least one student complained about the video, which aired on TV Ontario. That “transgression” prompted Shepherd to be called before a three-person tribunal, which grilled her on why she would play the clip without putting it in the proper context, i.e. that Peterson’s views are unacceptable, rather than simply trying to view it through an objective and impartial lens.

One of the panel – Shepherd’s immediate supervisor – went so far as to compare her actions to airing a speech from Adolf Hitler without condemning him.

In terms of the popular perception of what a university should be – a bastion of free speech and thought – it is anathema for many people, but it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Shepherd, to her credit, had the foresight to record the interview, and provided it to various media sources.

The incident, not surprisingly, went viral and has been the catalyst for a great deal of ranting and angst about the state of post-secondary education in Ontario, if not in Canada. One of the most common laments is how people are not being taught critical thinking skills anymore.

That claim, which seems reasonable on the surface, makes me laugh out loud. Education has rarely, if ever, been about fostering critical thought. Education and public education in particular, has always been about indoctrination and socialization, which means teaching people what to think, not how to think. It’s about drilling people on what is considered socially acceptable, not challenging those paradigms of thought. It’s ideological, rather than logical.

The extent to which this is happening in education and everyday life, though, has certainly become more intense. Terms such as “echo chambers” have never been more relevant.

Increasingly, people insist on surrounding themselves with people “of like mind”, and tailoring their information gathering to support those beliefs. Anything different is treated with hostility, disparagement and contempt. It is something to be attacked, not studied and contemplated and perhaps mined for new information and perspectives.

I first remember being disturbed by this trend in the mid 1990s. Natural sciences have always been a somewhat casual interest and hobby of mine, and at the time I was involved in several naturalist clubs. That’s where I first became acquainted with people who were fond of using the term “of like mind” where I would have used “similar interests”.

They are very different concepts. When I heard that phrase being bandied about, I was immediately uncomfortable and wary, recognizing an ideological zeal with near-religious overtones, as well as being a substitute for independent thought and individualism. Group-think was the way to get along with those members, and it wasn’t long before we parted company.

One of my favourite lines from the TV series M.A.S.H. always springs to mind when I hear “of like mind”, and that is a Frank Burns classic. “Individualism is fine as long as we all do it together.”

It also reminds me of a study that several of my Laurier professors were working on while I was finishing my B.A. It was based on the notion that “Americans are more individualistic than Canadians because they join groups.”

Those same professors were not impressed with my perspective on that hypothesis when I expressed it… foreshadowing things to come.

Since then, I’ve seen the trend toward “like minds” and “echo chambers” grow enormously. It’s why so many people can’t seem to have conversations anymore to sound out differences, Conversations and debates have given way to shouting matches and rhetoric, and there seems to be little genuine desire to change the process.

In local politics, at the municipal level, we’ve seen the same thing all around this region, including The Blue Mountains. The attitude has gone viral amongst those interested in the political landscape, and amongst that population no one seriously wants anything different. Each side believes you’re either with them or against them, and there is no middle ground, no compromise, no truces or treaties. It’s a fight to the ideological death, and no prisoners will be taken.

I’m tempted to say that’s due to a lack of maturity in people’s thought processes, but that’s probably not a helpful statement, even if true.

So what’s the solution?

We must try harder to embrace critical thought and independent thinking, even if it goes against every cultural grain we have. We must step out of the echo chambers, and out of the comfort zone that goes with them. We must learn to respect different ideas, and to ponder if there is something to be learned from them, rather than engaging in a Pavlovian response of rejecting them… or in some cases embracing them without consideration because it’s the “progressive” thing to do or because “it’s the way we’ve always done things.” Learn to accept people are not obliged to think the same way you do, rather than finding it frightening.

Even more simply, just learn to stop talking for a while and actually listen.

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