I have written quite a few articles on free speech in recent times, but it has suddenly occurred to me that I might have been unknowingly pursuing the wrong objective. Whilst I would surely argue that that we should be able to speak our minds without undue impediment, that is unlikely to help unless people are prepared to listen to what we have to say.
I am not a great fan of Stephen Covey. I think much of his stuff is pretty simplistic, but I vividly remember in one of his books he counselled something to the effect, “If you want to be heard, then it helps if first you listen.” That, I think, is good advice.
In a recent blog, I quoted Garton Ash, who in his book Free Speech argues that a precondition for free speech is “robust civility”. In retrospect, I think the lack of this quality might be the greatest impediment to free speech. If we exhibited such “robust civility” then surely we would have the forbearance to hear points of view opposite to our own.
Most people who exhibit the intolerance of shutting down the opinions of those who don’t agree with them display great arrogance. Again, as I quoted in a previous blog essay, John Stuart Mill wrote, “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”
But in that respect I think Mill got it wrong. Silencing of discussion, I believe, is often associated with an underlying fear that a belief you hold, and to which you believe your identity is somehow attached, may indeed prove to be wrong. Such people can’t afford to have their beliefs questioned.
But of course it also requires a little humility to properly consider the beliefs of others because it requires that we admit there is a possibility, however small, that we might indeed be wrong!
Listening not only requires some humility but also some empathy. It requires us to believe that a fellow human being be acknowledged as having something to say, that in its own way, is worthwhile listening to. In modern psychological parlance, an ability to listen is a manifestation of emotional intelligence.
Working as an executive coach for the best part of 15 years, I have found that the least effective coaching strategy is to jump in with dogmatic statements of “what one ought to do”. Clients need to be led to their own understanding rather than be “should” upon.
It concerns me somewhat, that in my defence of free speech in my blog essays, I have probably shown less tolerance for those whose opinions I disagree with than I ever would have done in a one-on-one coaching session. I suppose this reflects the fact that when I write such material I can’t readily identify with the individuals who hold opinions counter to my own as I can when we meet face to face.
When I deal with a person face to face, I find it intriguing to tease out their beliefs and the rationale behind them.
As I have written many times, people’s beliefs are hardly ever derived autonomously. Our beliefs are fashioned by our circumstances. If you vote Labor it is more than likely because your family voted Labor or your peer group votes Labor. If you have a traditional belief in a Christian God, more than likely you come from a Christian family or influential peers shared such a belief. We tend to take on the beliefs of those close to us and those we associate with. Our social needs to belong are very influential here. No doubt you will assail me with numerous examples where this is not the case. But in the main this is true.
When you understand this, you must accept that you were unlikely to be the initiator of your marvellous ideas and your opponents probably didn’t come to their own conclusions autonomously either. Doesn’t that suggest we should allow some tolerance for those who disagree with us?
Well, then you might legitimately ask, where does that put us with respect to competing ideas. My only suggestion would be to keep an open mind.
There are many historical precedents where generally accepted beliefs have been overturned by those with heretical ideas. Copernicus, in the face of biblical myths and religious dogma showed us that our universe was not centred on the earth but on the sun. There have been many such heresies that have eventually had to be conceded as the truth.
As late as the 1980’s Australian scientists Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, flying in the face of conventional wisdom, showed that many stomach ulcers were caused by the bacterium, helicobacter pylori, rather than by stress as was commonly believed.
No doubt there are still many such “truths” remaining to be challenged and unless we have the humility to admit we may be wrong and therefore appropriately consider alternative points of view such revelations may not be made.
The American scholar Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly, writes:
The core of authenticity is the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable……
We also know from numerous studies of the psychology of interpersonal relationships that exposing our vulnerabilities to others helps us garner their trust. So it is more than likely that free speech would be considerably advanced by our mutual admissions that we could be wrong, there are things we are not certain about and consequently ideas different to our own might be worth considering.
In my experience, limited and perhaps unrepresentative as it is, whilst I am happy to share my ideas, I don’t have a great desire to “convert” anyone. I am happy to share my limited understanding of the world with whoever might listen, but I know most people don’t change their minds about significant issues until the incongruity between their beliefs and the way the world really is causes them pain.
The incomparable Anthony De Mello put it nicely in his little book, Awareness.
…… even though I say to you at times, “Wake up!” My business is to do my thing, to dance my dance. If you profit from it, fine; if you don’t, too bad! As the Arabs say, “The nature of rain is the same, but it makes thorns grow in the marshes, and flowers in the gardens.”
But then, on the other hand, when it is your time to say your piece, I need to be enlightened enough to properly consider your opinions as well. Even if I am not convinced by your ideas, I will have at least acknowledged your humanity by respectfully listening to your point of view. And I guess that is what Garton Ash meant by “robust civility”.