One of my favorite pastimes is to yell at my television and radio. Of course, the TV and radio aren’t really the subjects of my frustration; my issue generally lies with the personalities who use these poor, defenseless inanimate objects to deliver their misguided messages to the public.
For the most part, this tradition has always been quite an excellent arrangement for me; I get to sit on the couch in my pajamas, remote in hand, devouring the junk food of my choice, all while energetically poking holes in said cable news personality’s horrible excuse for an argument.
Surprisingly, this whole ritual is never as satisfying as one would think (junk food aside, of course). You would think that winning an argument completely unchallenged would be a huge ego boost, and since this generally all takes place when there no one else in the room to do anything else but roll their eyes at me (enter my spouse), I always win. But somehow, I still tend to leave the argument even more enraged than I was before; frustrated that I really haven’t done anything to change the fact that there is someone out there who holds a worldview that is, in my opinion, illogical, baseless, and probably even destructive. And, astonishingly, my arguments, no matter how loudly delivered, never seem to reach the ears of the pundit who so unapologetically espouses his or her views.
I have always passionately argued that this practice helps me better understand different points of view so that I can defend against them in an “actual” debate. I have even gone so far as to say that my Unitarian Universalist Principles demand that I occasionally immerse myself in alternative opinions so that I may challenge my own beliefs and explore other truths. Also, I figure that if I expose myself to some of these sometimes shocking ideas then when I hear them repeated by someone who is, I don’t know, cutting my hair, I will be able to keep myself from saying something I might later regret every time I look in the mirror.
On the other hand, there is a distinct possibility that this whole custom might really be contributing to the problem. If I tune in once a week to a cable news channel, what kind of money am I responsible for feeding into the whole operation? Am I just egging on these people? Perhaps my energy would be better spent writing letters and having an actual conversation with somebody.
So, with our cable service cancelled and the local talk radio channel erased from my presets, I have decided that it is time to have real conversations with people while engaging in a new spiritual practice: listening. Really listening.
I have discovered that the most disastrous result of my cable news and talk radio habit isn’t that I am giving the networks money. The worst part is that that every time I surround myself with the kind of hyperbolic rhetoric that comes from someone who can say whatever they want from the safety of a studio surrounded only by people who are making money from his or her wild assertions, then I forget that none of it is real. It only becomes real when we all start emulating the tactics of these pundits and stop having conversations outside of the safety of our living room couches.
Our pundit culture has completely changed the way we think about politics and debate. It taught us to view debate not as a way to expand our minds and understandings, but instead as a contest to be won; and what could be more interesting than to watch in a time of reality TV than two people engaged in duel? The winner has successfully and stubbornly stood her ground and the loser walks away with his tail between his legs, dragging his credibility behind him.
In the pundit world, ratings have replaced enlightenment as the ultimate coveted prize, and there is no line networks aren’t willing to cross to win them. Cable television and talk radio have become a modern-day Roman Colosseum, and our politicians and pundits are gladiators, pitting ideas against one another and hanging on to ill-begotten ideas as if their lives depended on it. Thanks to pundits, we have all adopted the opinion that to change your position on an issue “wishy-washy”, and that as long as you never show a single sign of humility or an ability to expand your mind, you will never have to answer to the person yelling into her TV screen a thousand miles away.
It is so easy to forget that opinions are much more likely to change when two people are in a position to actually listen to one another. Not just because they happen to be physically in the same location, but because they really want to hear what the other person has to say and (gasp!) are even amenable to learning something that they didn’t already know. We need these conversations to get back in touch with our humility and remember that we do not die when we change our opinions. Sometimes we actually grow.
So we, on both side of the aisle, can continue down the path of the pundits; we can continue to engage in destructive debates that focus only on destroying the character of another who disagrees with us. Or we can choose the higher road. This is a path that requires us to leave our couches and our studios and to listen in love every time; no matter how hard it may be.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.