By Guy Page
June 11, 2020 – America sucks at listening.
My America. Your America. “Their” America. Me. You. Black. White. Liberal. Conservative. Poor. Rich. We’re caught in a full-blown pandemic of willful deafness. The connections between the ear and the heart no longer fire. Our collective, national spiritual dopamine is lacking. Is it any wonder that like a Parkinson’s sufferer, America is rigid and shaking at the same time?
Social media is no cure. Sometimes it’s as conducive to give-and-take discussion as Techno music in a nightclub. This week my Facebook page featured a heated, two-day discussion among six Vermont “public figures” of middling stature – three media types, a think tank driver, a former state senator, and a House hopeful. It started with a dispute about whether the New York Times has a liberal bias. It descended into acrimony and attacks and no real listening. No consensus was reached, obviously. It ended abruptly when one member left the convo after angrily advising the others to seek God’s forgiveness for lying.
Not a Kumbiyah moment.
Real-life gatherings don’t necessarily stimulate listening, at least the two-way variety. Sunday afternoon the organizer of a police brutality protest urged black people only to speak at an open mic. When I asked her whether white people would be welcome, she shook her head and said black people have been silenced and this is a time for them to speak to the large audience which included many white people.
Not surprisingly, this policy created some social media backlash, and also prompted a reporter (not me) to ask Gov. Phil Scott a “shoe on the other foot” question at his press conference yesterday: would he object to a rally at which black people were not allowed to speak?
For the record Gov. Scott expressed unawareness about the black-speakers only policy. He opined that everyone should be permitted to speak.
I have an opinion, too: I’m okay with a situational black-only speaking policy, as long as it doesn’t become an expectation and a trend. White people could benefit to listen when black people speak. And vice-versa. Listening costs no-one – black or white – anything. It does not threaten us to listen. Neither our voice or value are diminished. Listening is the miracle that empowers both speaker and listener at the same time. Besides, if no one will listen, what’s the point of free speech? The Founders wrote the First Amendment in the finger-crossed hope that when Americans spoke, other Americans would listen.
What can white people learn from listening to black people?
We won’t know until we try. But for starters, we might develop a more powerful emotional opposition to police brutality of blacks. Just like that debate about the New York Times, for white folks it’s not personal. None of the six debaters had ever worked for the Gray Lady. And few white people have lived with the chronic fear of losing a child to police-on-black violence. Let us white folks admit we can’t understand this quite as deeply as a black parent. We don’t know what we cannot know.
At George Floyd’s funeral Tuesday, Rev. Al Sharpton quoted St. Paul urging the Ephesians to “put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day.” Well, Rev. Al and everyone else including Pres. Trump, here’s another Bible verse for you. James the brother of Jesus wrote: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.”
The angry word, the knee to the neck, the firebomb thrown, the small business owner’s dream destroyed, and the grieving mother’s wail most often could have been avoided if someone, somewhere, somehow had listened. Considered. Empathized. Maybe even prayed – perhaps for forgiveness. And only then spoken bold truth in love.
I’m a hypocrite to preach this way, of course. Deep down I want people to listen to me. What reporter doesn’t?
If you already think me a fool, I will continue in my foolishness: black people need to listen, too. To whom, about what? I recommend former President Barack Obama who on Father’s Day, 2018 preached to a predominantly black church what he practiced in real life – being a responsible father: “If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that what too many fathers also are is missing — missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it. You and I know how true this is in the African-American community. We know that more than half of all black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled — doubled — since we were children.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself, telling black people what I think they need to hear. I need to listen. Last night Ignite Church in Williston held an outdoor Reconciliation Service billed as “a gathering of worship, prayer, solidarity & healing.” Attendees were urged to “bring a chair and hear from local black voices from around the region.”
I couldn’t attend. I don’t know how it went. Better than my Facebook debate, I hope! But I hope to report about it soon. And maybe that Facebook I-hope-not-former-friend of mine had a good idea. Maybe we do need to ask forgiveness, at least for not following James’ advice. And then show we mean it by listening better. Maybe what Derek Chauvin and Antifa meant for evil, a fellowship of listeners can turn to good.
Photo: Facebook page of Ignite Church, Williston, Vermont.