John Lande: The Importance of Really Listening – For Ourselves, Others, and Democracy

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Newsletter 113 — May 9, 2023


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This is a shortened version of an article by the same title published as a University of Missouri School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2023-03, which is downloadable from SSRN. Thanks, John, for sharing it here as well!


The Importance of Really Listening – For Ourselves, Others, and Democracy

By John Lande

May 8, 2023

There is a problematic trend of people trying to prevent others from expressing ideas they disagree with.  The first part of this article addresses the reality that we all are wrong much of the time, and that listening is essential to get a better understanding of the world and to interact productively.  The second part discusses principles of freedom of speech reflecting a strong presumption in favor of speech – and listening.  These practices are imperfect.  But they are necessary in a democracy, with the understanding that there is no perfect way to resolve strongly conflicting views.

You’re Wrong . . . And That’s a Good Thing

Kathryn Schulz’s fabulous book, Being Wrong:  Adventures in the Margin of Error, is a compelling argument for appreciating the value of being wrong.  Indeed, some of our biggest errors are that we generally assume that we correctly understand the world and that being wrong is bad.  Here are excerpts from her book.

Of all the things we are wrong about, this idea of error might well top the list.  It is our meta-mistake:  we are wrong about what it means to be wrong.  Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition.  Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities:  empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage.  And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change.  Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world.

We can see this in our own lives as we grow older and learn, discarding ideas that we used to believe.

All of us outgrow some of our beliefs.  All of us hatch theories in one moment only to find that we must abandon them in the next.  Our tricky senses, our limited intellects, our fickle memories, the veil of emotions, the tug of allegiances, the complexity of the world around us:  all of this conspires to ensure that we get things wrong again and again.

We are wrong not only about facts but also values and ideas, about which there is no single “right” answer.  Reasonable people can and do differ from each other.

Sometimes, we conclude that we were wrong about the substance of our ethical convictions:  that premarital sex actually isn’t morally abhorrent, say, or that vegetarianism isn’t morally requisite.  At other times, we conclude that we were right about our ethics but wrong about the people or institutions we trusted to uphold them.

We can’t correct our errors without listening so we can consider that we may be wrong.

[L]istening is one of the best ways we can make room in our lives for our own fallibility. . . . As soon as we think we are right about something, we narrow our focus, attending only to details that support our belief, or ceasing to listen altogether. . . . By contrast, when we are aware that we could be wrong, we are far more inclined to hear other people out.

We can get many benefits by recognizing our fallibility.

I look at how embracing our fallibility not only lessens our likelihood of erring, but also helps us think more creatively, treat each other more thoughtfully, and construct freer and fairer societies. . . . [E]rror [is] a gift in itself – a rich and irreplaceable source of humor, art, illumination, individuality, and change.

When we insist that we are right, it’s hard to deal with others.

Our default attitude toward wrongness, then – our distaste for error and our appetite for being right – tends to be rough on relationships.  This applies equally to relationships among nations, communities, colleagues, friends, and (as will not be lost on most readers) relatives.  Indeed, an old adage of therapists is that you can either be right or be in a relationship:  you can remain attached to Team You winning every confrontation, or you can remain attached to your friends and family, but good luck trying to do both.

Listening is important for us to recognize our errors.

[L]istening is an act of humility.  It says that other people’s ideas are interesting and important;  that our own could be in error;  that there is still plenty left for us to learn.

Listening is important in the public realm of governance as well as our private interactions.

These measures might be a prescription for identifying and eliminating mistakes, but they sound like something else:  a prescription for democracy.  That’s not an accident.  Although we don’t normally think of it in these terms, democratic governance represents another method . . . for accepting the existence of error and trying to curtail its more dangerous incarnations.

The Importance of Listening in Public Life

Listening is directly related to speech.  Freedom of speech loses some of its value if people can’t listen to it.  Conversely, people’s ability to listen and learn is undermined if others aren’t free to speak.  These are core democratic values.

Unfortunately, in recent years, there have been many efforts to restrain speech in K-12 and higher education, libraries, public events, and social media, among other contexts.  College and university campuses are particularly important places for people to express differing ideas, which is essential for education and research.  The “Chicago Statement” is the free speech policy statement that has been adopted by more than 90 institutions.  It states, in part:

Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn . . .. [I]t is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.

Limits to Listening

Of course, there are limits to people’s freedom of speech (and listening) as suggested by the Chicago Statement.  This freedom does not give license to violate others’ rights.

There are difficult situations when people use their freedom of speech to express things that others find offensive but that are not illegal.  A classic example is when neo-Nazis wanted to march through Skokie, Illinois, the home of many Holocaust survivors.  The neo-Nazis obtained court decisions upholding their First Amendment rights.  Fortunately, that conflict was defused when the federal Community Relations Service reached accommodations that protected the neo-Nazis’ rights, avoided violent confrontations with counter-protesters, and protected Skokie residents from having the offensive march in their community.

Interfering with others’ speech perceived as offensive is based on the assumption that one is undeniably morally or factually right and that the speakers are wrong.  Being Wrong teaches that, because we are not omniscient deities, we all inevitably are wrong much of the time.  And there is no single “right answer” to many moral, political, religious, and other questions.  Much depends on our different experiences and perspectives.  So listening seriously is extremely important.

Some people are tempted to prevent others from expressing things that they find offensive and believe are harmful (though not illegal).  The “counterspeech doctrine” holds that the remedy is “more speech, not enforced silence.”  Thus it calls for protests or other efforts to challenge the speech deemed offensive but not suppression of it.

Obviously, this is not a perfect solution.  Some groups have more power and access to media than others, so counter-speakers may not be able to effectively respond in the “marketplace of ideas.”

Although the counterspeech doctrine can’t completely protect disadvantaged parties, trying to prevent powerful parties from speaking is worse.  They have advantages in any case.  Moreover, attempts to prevent them from speaking may distract from the substantive issues and, instead, focus attention on violations of free speech norms.  These norms are fundamentally important and should be honored unless there is very strong justification for doing otherwise.

Practicing Humility and Listening

So we should practice humility even – and perhaps especially – when we strongly believe that we are right.  We may not change our views, but listening should reduce our risk of error and can help us to be as effective as possible in promoting our ideas.  This mindset is critically important in democratic societies.

This is an abridged version of a somewhat longer article.  Click here to read the full article.

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