Selective Hearing: How Do We Move Beyond Party Lines in Public Discourse?

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I wonder how often debates sway people politically and religiously. Take for example last night’s Presidential debate. Many conservatives thought Donald Trump won and many liberals thought Hillary Clinton won. Could it be selective hearing? We tend to hear those things we wish to hear, and champion whoever and whatever promotes our ad-vantage point.

Whether it is politics or religion, we tend to hear what we want to hear. Moreover, it is often the case that we cannot wait for the other party to shut up so we can make our point. But if we want to promote public discourse that is truly dialogical, we all have to give up something in order to gain more. Such sacrifice is rather difficult to champion when we live in a political and religious culture where winner takes all.

Before giving reasons for how to move beyond party lines in public discourse, it is important to ask why we would even want to move beyond party lines in public discourse in the first place. One reason why it is important is that it helps us move beyond despot or mob rule. While we all struggle with thinking logically, partisanship simply reinforces the appetite to pursue might, not what is true or right. The imposition of might destroys a democratic way of life. Another reason why it is important to move beyond party lines in public discourse is because two or three heads are often better than one. We have much to learn from one another, including those to the right and left of us. Still another reason is that selective hearing, if allowed to proceed unchecked, isolates us from everyone who does not think or act exactly like we do. Such isolation is incredibly damaging to the health of individuals and nations. Perhaps you can think of other reasons why we should want to move beyond party lines for public discourse. If so, what are they?

So, how do we move beyond party line positions for public discourse? Here are three ways set forth succinctly. First, we need to build bridges where we seek to find the good in others’ positions and, wherever possible, to make them our own. Second, we need to listen to the other and respond rather than talk over them. Third, we need to take to heart that political and religious leaders, for example, are human and have lives of their own beyond party positions.

Selective hearing can end up leading toward selective humanity. The tendency exists that anyone who disagrees with us is stupid or immoral and not worthy of consideration. If allowed full reign, such selective hearing will lead us to isolate ourselves from everyone who doesn’t think quite like we do—including our parents, spouses, friends, and neighbors. Rather than cultivate public discourse, the art of persuasion becomes the vice of degeneration where the only conversation taking place is a private, isolated one within our own heads. Such isolation is the equivalent of solitary confinement, which, if left unchecked, destroys one’s psyche and soul—and eventually the soul of a nation.

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Phil Wyman (featured in the video below) is Pastor of The Gathering in Salem, Massachussets.  He is engaged in promoting civil discourse in our religiously plural culture with “Multi-Faith Matters.”

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