What if instead of trying to change others who hold different views, we simply chose to listen to them? I mean, just stopped telling others what they should be thinking and feeling, and were just present with them? What if the goal was not to change others, but simply to understand them? How might our own ideas and opinions change, including our perception of those others? How would the world change, and our relationship to it?
Liberalism, as was classically defined, was about inviting others into our space. It was about empathy and compasssion. It wasn’t necessarily about agreeing with them, nor ignoring their shortcomings or any relevant problems. But it wasn’t about labelling and condemning them. It was about listening. Can we really say that we have a healthy “liberal” discourse today? Are we really listening to others?
In the past few weeks I have seen quite a few idealistic folks imploring their social media friends to join them in spreading “the word.” The main idea is that these are extraordinary times, and this requires extraordinary action.
I have not heard a single person inviting others to listen to those they disagree with.
In fact, in the age of social media personalisation algorithms, many people are simply unaware of what that “other” side thinks or feels. This is because their voices are never heard. Or, on the rare occasions they are heard, they are not listened to.
I have never identified with a particular political party, but I have definitely identified with classical liberal ideals. I still do. I am an advocate of freedom and equality, including equality of responsibility. But I would not call myself a “liberal” in the current political climate. What I see coming from liberal commentators in the media and liberal media today typically violates classical liberal ideals. There is almost no desire to listen or empathise, nor to create spaces for open communication. Typically, current liberal discourse dehumanises any individual who disagrees with any of the tenets of leftist progressivism, by labelling them fascists, racists, sexists and so on. This has driven a vast gap into our political discourse. And in doing so “liberalism” has shot itself in the foot.
We see fascists everywhere.
I am not going to outline all those liberal tenets here. But let me just say that even as it preaches tolerance of race, gender, sexual preference and so on, today’s “liberalism” is typically intolerant of ideological, philosophical and political diversity. It often crushes dissent via a culture of blame, shame and fear, reminiscent of Maoist China. Most problematic is that in many left-leaning media outlets, free space is given to individuals who are extremely intolerant and even violent in their dialogue. Probematically, these same outlets often censor any criticism of this intolerant dialogue.
Needless to say, this says nothing about the role that the political right is playing in all this. But if even “liberalism” cannot find the capacity to listen, we shouldn’t expect to find such a capacity elsewhere.
Still, there are indeed plenty of moderate thinkers on both sides of the political divide (which is not so black and white, at any rate). But they are increasingly marginalised. In part this is self-censorship, as the consequences for dissent within this system can be swift and permanent. The power in our universities and much of the media lies with the left, so the left has a special role to play in correcting the current imbalance.
Jonathan Haidt is a sensible and considered voice on how this tribal political division has come about. He argues that we do not have much “liberalism” today. He prefers the term “illiberalism,” because the left has betrayed its own ideological roots. He too invites us to begin listening. To be more humble.
What would happen if you took a week, or even a month away from your favourite media outlets and commentators? What if you stopped posting on the internet and instead tuned in to listen to those who hold different opinions from you? Perhaps you might find the monsters aren’t so monstrous. They might even turn out to be human.
This is exactly what I have done in the past six months or so, and it’s why I have posted far less on this site, and other social media outlets. I feel I have a much greater empathy with those I once disagreed with, as well as a greater appreciation for the kinds of criticisms that I once saw as “wrong.” Perhaps the young Asian man in the video below is someone you would never normally listen to. It might be a good start. But don’t let me limit your choices.
It’s the answer to the question that you have been waiting for God herself to deliver unto you. What is the best political stance to take? Should I be a conservative? Or a liberal? Which is the more “spiritual” ideology? Which is the more righteous, the more holy, or in the parlance of the new age more “conscious?”
What am I getting myself into here? Everyone knows that, just like religion, you should never talk about politics. Someone is bound to get pissed off. And they are right. Given this, I have decided the best approach to this subject is to piss everyone off, and thus avoid accusations of bias.
Perhaps I should mention that I am Australian. We are a little more relaxed about politics where I come from. Can you imagine Steve Irwin (RIP) rocking up to a political convention and blasting out a heap of political dross because he really believes all that BS? No, he’d much rather be wrestling crocodiles, or in the backyard having a beer with the wife, or just spending time with the kids. So it is that we Aussies don’t really get the political divide in the US. This ignorance can be really helpful when writing about American politics, I find.
But wait. This is not really about America, is it? Australia also has conservatives and lefties. It’s a bit like America, only with less guns. And just about every country has liberal and conservative traditions. Some such ideologies are far to the right or to left, while others are more “centrist” and relaxed in their views. In Australia ironically the Liberal Party is conservative, while the Labour Party is leftist. Well, they used to be, but now it’s pretty hard to tell the difference.
Okay, let me be a little serious for a moment. We do have a problem on our hands. Right across the world we are seeing political parties and ideals swing towards more extreme ends of the spectrum. We do live in unsettled times. We have witnessed the rise of more conservative elements in many countries. Donald Trump is no tree-hugging greenie, and he might be the next Prez. Britain just voted to exit the EU, and concerns over immigration were a big factor – as they are right across Europe. In Australia Pauline Hanson was just voted back in as a member of parliament. You Americans have probably never heard of her, but she’s like Donald Trump in drag, and equally attractive.
Now, if you are a little conservative your blood pressure might be rising a bit right now. Is this Marcus T Anthony character, this Crocodile Dundee wannabe, taking a shot at our side? But if you are a liberal, you might be starting to feel a little self-righteous. It looks like Marcus is gunning for us here. After all, he put Trump in the “extreme” camp. “Should be a death camp”, you might be murmuring.
But you could be wrong.
Listen to this audio recording, below. This is a recent conversation between a conservative and a liberal. It’s Michael Brooks vs Sargon of Akkad (AKA Carl Benjamin). I dare you to listen to just two minutes, from 18:00 to 20:00. That should do you. It certainly did me. After listening, tell me what you learned, and what you think the two men learned.
It wasn’t so difficult to answer the question, now was it. “Nothing” isn’t too a difficult concept to understand.
While we are at it, check out this lovely display of liberal-conservative hand-holding. It’s super-liberals Chenk Uygur and the Young Turks in one corner, and the ultra-conservative Alex Jones in the left. Tune in from 1:40 to 4:20. What do they learn?
Well, Jones probably learned that it’s not always nice to get a free drink. In the face. Other than that, not a lot of wisdom emerged from this encounter.
Like I said, we’ve got a problem.
People aren’t listening to each other. Most of us have become so deeply attached to our ideals and beliefs that we can simply no longer engage others with an open mind. Part of the problem is the Internet. Personalisation algorithms mean that whenever you open most social media and news sites, you keep getting fed the same ideas from the same people and the same sources. They got you pegged.
There’s a term for this. It’s called “the echo chamber.” We keep hearing our own voices repeating on ourselves.
And we learn nothing.
It’s not just a problem in politics. I noted this long ago in the area of parapsychology. As an “intuitive” I was naturally drawn to the “proponents’” camp. But there is also a skeptics collective, and they are equally as convinced of their rightness. Few people traverse the treachery of the vast no mans’s land between the two camps. Well, almost nobody. I have done so. What I noticed when I ventured forth was that on both sides of the divide much of the “debate” is about how stupid and deluded the other camp is. Not a lot of listening goes on.
You can probably think of many similar confrontational binaries in many fields of interest. It just seems to be the nature of the human mind.
What is to be done about this?
I have come up with a solution. But perhaps it’s not one you would prefer to hear. I call it “being present to what rises before me.”
When we become present with our breath, with our sense of the body, or with something that is before us (like a pot plant, a desk, a cup) the mind tends to fall silent. As we focus upon the thing we are paying attention to, thoughts will tend to enter the mind. We can observe them, and let them go. If we do this often enough we learn at an experiential level that we are not our thoughts. We learn that the mind likes to take thoughts and ideas and invest them with an importance and permanence that they simply do not merit. Over time these thoughts become beliefs, and the mind insists that they are “real.” Soon we identify with them. We think they are “out there”, and when others attack them, we feel personally threatened.
A powerful consciousnesss tool is to practice presence with people whom we disagree with. You can do this easily by going to YouTube and watching a video of someone whom you kind of despise politically. If you a vegan, tree-hugging leftie, go watch five minutes of a Trump speech. As thoughts and judgments arise in your mind (perhaps, “Die Trump, die!”) simply observe them, and let them go. If you can return to watching Trump’s orange face without judgment, you have achieved mastery, Grasshopper. If you are moonshine-swilling, gun-toting Rebublican, do the same with any public figure you fantasise of gunning down in your Charlton Heston t-shirt while quoting the second amendment.
Watch or listen, and simply observe the mind.
Another way to begin to achieve distance from our beliefs and our minds is to take the complete opposite side of an argument that you feel strongly attached to, and argue against it from the perspective of the other person. If you hate Trump, imagine defending him passionately. Better, still go online and write it out. Better do it on one of those anonymous forums, though, just in case your friends see. If you are convinced Obama was born in a tree in Kenya, do the same and write a strong rebuttal of that very idea, championing Obama as the right man to lead the nation during this period in history. This process is humiliating, but ultimately expansive.
Or you can just spend time listening to folks from the other side. Ditch Sargon of Akkad for the Young Turks for a couple of weeks, or vice versa.
Perhaps I should make a confession at this point. I am slightly confused about who I really am. At the level of mind.
Just in the last few days I have been criticised for being a liberal, but also for being a conservative. I annoyed a white liberal by criticising the writing of a black man whom I said was using racist language and attitudes towards white people. Then not long after, a conservative got a little annoyed at me when I stated that Trump did not offer a workable future which met the needs of all Americans, including blacks and Muslims. The good thing is that I understood where the critics were coming from, so I could easily let the criticism slide. After all, I kind of half-agreed with them.
Learning to be more mindful and listening to others does not mean you will no longer have opinions and beliefs. It doesn’t necessarily mean you will never be offended, angry or perhaps rude to others. You will still have a “mind.” What it does mean is that you will be less likely to experience these projections,; and when you do you will be be able to immediately accept responsibility for them.
Notice that I expressed two opinions in the two instances mentioned above. Both opinions are founded in the belief that it is important that we rise above the tribal mind, that we stop blaming and stereotyping other people, groups and races. We need to be responsible for our destructive side. The key for me isn’t whether arguments hold to liberal or conservative positions, but whether they facilitate healing, or alternatively encourage violence, including intellectual violence. As the two YouTube clips above show, today there is a lot of this violence amongst both liberals and conservatives.
You can express an opinion without engaging the violence of mind by not attempting to impose your viewpoint upon others, and by letting go of the need for them to agree with you. If you find yourself ruminating over a battle for “the one correct truth,” just acknowledge it mindfully, pull out of the discussion and surrender it to the universe. You might even like to apologise to the other person. That is what I did in the instance I mentioned where I offended a white liberal make by being critical of an article written by the black writer. Nothing quiets the ego like making an apology.
Despite the origins of the ideology, which is founded in equality, generosity and community, generally speaking there is a rising problem amongst liberalism in that it is increasingly rigid, intolerant and aggressive. That is why, even though my ideals are a good match for the liberal tradition, I usually don’t identify myself as one (although occasionally I still do). I don’t like what has become of liberalism in general. So I let that label go. I’m not saying anybody else should do this.
Of course, fostering the attitude of being present with what rises before you doesn’t come without a price. It requires a new way of relating to your mind, to yourself. It is inevitably cognitively destabilising. It’s scary. For a while you will feel like you don’t know who you are anymore. And that’s why most people probably won’t choose this path.
Are you “most people?”
The truth is that in deep presence we simply CANNOT know who we are, at least not within the mind. For that identification with self requires thought and conceptualisation. In presence we can only EXPERIENCE ourselves (and others). We simply are. And we can simply let the other man or woman be.
All this doesn’t mean that you have to ditch all your beliefs and political attitudes. It may just necessitate that you become more relaxed, and more open. You will start to see things from the other person’s point of view. You might start to listen again. You may begin to appreciate other ideas and perspectives. In presence, empathy comes naturally, with gratitude. Even when people disagree, or attack you from “the mind.”
And that is the whole point.
So let me now deliver the final note of my sermon (cue organ master). If we really want to awaken into a more conscious experience of ourselves (the essence of spirituality), we will most likely no longer identify with being a conservative or a liberal. And if we do, we will be less rigidly fixated on the us/them divide. For such an identification is what locks us into the small “I.” In this sense, any time of political engagement can be an opportunity to witness the mind, to become more deeply present to self, to others and to the world. Politics then invites us to become more conscious – not less conscious, as typically happens for many. Politics, like all mental experiences, can be an invitation to awaken from the dream of mind.