For all the wrong reasons

By Othniell Bolaji. Othniell is a student at the University of Ilorin, Nigeria. Please read his entry and leave your comments below.

I look at the above quote and see surmised, with pin point accuracy, the underlying theme of a century besotted with rhetoric and opinions. The strength of human society is, without doubt, in its diversity. And nothing has quite driven its evolution to what it is today than its formidable will to pit rhetoric, ideals and opinions – one against the other – identify (or more so often, stumble on) the best points and grow on compromise. Thus, it is ironic that today’s ambiance shuns this very tenet. We are in an intellectually advanced age. More than ever, every sentient member of society is expected not only to hold a stance on any issue, but also to preach his position and defend it with every tool at his disposal – be it his attention (lack thereof), his wit or his “savagery”. And so our communication is carefully guarded and our convictions shielded from outside intrusion; proof of the individualism that pervades our dealings today.

I think Stephen highlights a very dangerous trend set very deep in modern life; reaching well into matters of political/personal/ideological inclination, philosophy and principle. And I can resonate with the seeming accusation in those words along lines in which I (and several others, I’m sure) are affected. I must although point out, before delving into the obvious, that my answer to the “why” is not strictly one related to the frailties of human character; reasons such as ego, self gratification, loyalties, selfishness and whatnot. These only support a partial understanding of context. A funny but adequate allusion would be to say that our world of 140-character opinions has left us with two-dimensional perspectives and oversimplified binarist convictions. We simply have forgotten that we have capacity for more (or we just choose not to accept more) and we are stuck in a cycle of self improvement that is really self defeating. Naturally, this development has severally impaired human discourse in all the areas that matter. The point is to churn out words. We have become a “speechifying culture” (Thank you, Stacy Schiff!), appreciative of nothing less but the shapely argument; the regular back-and-forth of persuasion and negation; even on thorny issues.

Concisely, we seem to glory more in form rather than content. From the verbal exchange of law-makers in parliament, to the anticipatory barter in political or social debates and or even further to the mechanical exchange between an “impassioned celebrity” on social media and followers who resort to being shallow and impressively unreachable in disagreeing with his/her views. It is normal that we feel secure in being shaped by our experiences and absolutely natural that we defend our beliefs. What is abnormal is seeing speech not as a vehicle for weighed thought but as that equalizer that allows us tune our voices well above others. And it is upsetting in the long run, that compromise and understanding are deemed the weak man’s game. In today’s world, Listening – truly listening – is “uncool”. It is the exception rather than the norm. Verbal dexterity, whether it is devoid of relevance or truth, is the appreciated skill. Shallow, selfish reasoning thus becomes the icing on the cake. Just be nimble about it and it’s what everybody gobbles up (insert memory of the 2016 US Presidential Debate here). Hence, the culture of “replying” proliferates and becomes the popular reaction.

Leaving abstractions and addressing the elephant (or paradox) in the room, one might ask; “is it not the whole point of a conversation to speak upon being spoken to?” Of course! If to you, a conversation is a scripted Q&A session during a televised seminar or a good old standoff in an old western. The reality is that things are never quite so simple. The point of a conversation, especially where it takes the form of a debate/argument, is to showcase competing perspectives or opinions about a matter; the end of which is to see that an understanding is reached (To argue the opposite in the case of academic debates is pertinent as the rules are entirely different).  Listening is validated by its end purpose – to understand. And where it is done with intent to reply; it is a corruption of the chain of meaningful conversation. It is still listening, mind you; but for all the wrong reasons. Those who do it simply exploit gaps in arguments or inconsistencies in the chain of thought, not ideally to correct or balance it but to destroy or ridicule it.  They do not believe in silence or proper explanation of their position as a finite measure of comprehension but will risk a de trops reply at the expense of a meaningful resolution to the worded exchange.

On a final note, I agree that Covey’s summary of the status quo is nothing but apt. It is a culture, listening to reply, that most people actively partake in; thereby placing a high premium on resolution of differences. The world is nothing if not a spectrum of perspectives and it has, in the past, taken active listening and understanding to light the path of humanity on the dark, tiring path of progress.  The right to hold and voice one’s opinion remains sacred; and the desire to protect it is nothing but commendable. But it is a testament to character and the legacy of intelligent thought, when this right is not held over and above that of the other as is the consequence of listening to reply.

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