We were having dinner at the end of one of our business trips to California. On the next table at the small restaurant were an American couple from Arizona. We struck up a friendly conversation, during which the subject of armed burglary came up.
The man expressed surprise that so few of the UK’s homes had guns. He was astonished when I said it was illegal to own a pistol, and that the only legal guns he would see over here were those owned by the police and armed forces, farmers, and those who shoot thousands of game birds on country estates as ‘sport’.
I said that we found it astonishing that lethal weapons were owned on such a scale. He fell quiet for a while, searching our expressions, then said, “Let me put it like this: if an armed burglar entered our family home and I had to rely on the police response… my family would be dead before they got to us. They are that bad, and it’s only my gun that gives us any sense of security”
He was a genuine and gentle man, and it made me think. Did I really know how it felt to be so vulnerable in the face of an armed intrusion into a family home? The conversation – on both sides – was a good example of gentle listening; with respect for the other’s point of view.
“The problem came from long ago,” he continued. “If we’d acted before everyone had guns, we could have stopped it…”
It’s many years since that night. The established ‘order’ of the world is now challenged, to say the least. Much of the democratic west is experiencing a crisis in which powerful figures with vast budgets have used the media to whip up emotions and polarise politics into camps of hatred. These are deliberate acts to undermine the ‘liberal status quo’ and the proponents are willing to sacrifice democracy to achieve it.
Many of these movements have been decades in the making and have well-funded plans to take over local and national centres of power. Many of them already own large swathes of the media.
Political forces move slowly against such brazen desecration. Unless there is widespread revulsion, the chances of the generation of a ‘new’ political force capable of resisting this negative manipulation are slim. The powerful forces unleashed against democracy are pivoted around a single idea sown in the minds of the dissatisfied: ‘you have real grievances and they’re not listening to you…’
Can we, as ordinary citizens of non-authoritarian regimes do anything?
The energy generated, harnessed and, in the internet age, farmed by those dismantling the old orders of tolerance and stability is predicated on convincing people that they are disadvantaged, and that the ‘ruling order’ is directly responsible. No specifics are given – just emotion, supercharged with hate and a new sense of ‘belonging’.
Perhaps we have created a society in which ‘some people’ deserve not to be listened to? In that sense, maybe we have forgotten how to listen.
I say this because listening is one of the most healing processes I know… and one of the most powerful interaction techniques I ever learned.
So why is it so hard to listen to another’s viewpoint? Is it just that our own values are emotively antithetical to another’s – especially when that ‘other’ has all the signs of someone we view as knowing less than we do; as having less experience in what it takes to collectively move a situation forward, or find a formula of constructive peace?
“Before you do anything else, listen. Listening is not a passive sport; it’s an active magic.”
In my working career, the most valuable tool I was ever provided with was a week’s course in core management skills. The experienced trainer began the first day with the words: “Before you do anything else, listen. Listening is not a passive sport; it’s an active magic.”
Imagine that you find yourself in the middle of a heated political debate being televised. Many of the participants are there for the enjoyment of snarling at ‘the enemy’. But some are there simply because their families support the snarlers. What if you could offer one or two of these the chance to sit down and genuinely explore how they feel. This would be managed by a skilled moderator in control of the room, someone with the capability and wisdom to make sure all interactions were very different to the brawl in front of the cameras.
We can all visualise that, though the opinions may not change, a far more complex and detailed picture would emerge of everyone’s point of view – and the often brutal and disadvantaged life that led up to it. We might actually see how someone came to have extreme and even violent opinions; and in that very action – of true understanding – the process might just have invoked the magic needed to break the grip of the snarl and the hatred… and take the wind out of the sails of those whose only interest is to destroy.
Someone once taught me that: “In resisting evil, we become stronger than the force that is tearing down what we love. If we do nothing, then we prove ourselves worthy of the wave that will sweep us away.”
There are many ways to resist evil, and some of them, while appearing passive, are quite the opposite.
©Stephen Tanham 2022
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.