Losing the art of listening has corrupted public discourse.
“God’s voice is of the heart. / I do not therefore say / all voices of the heart are God’s, / and to discern his voice amidst the voices, / is that hard task to which we each are born.”
I learned these words by heart 50 years ago, when I came across them as a young Christian in an old book of devotions by a now forgotten writer, J.R. Miller.
It is interesting to put those wise words from late 19th century American piety alongside Mark Thompson’s analysis of political discourse in “Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics?”
“Facebook, Twitter and the Blogosphere have created a limitless marketplace for ‘doxa,’ a public arena in which your ability to get your opinion across is no longer constrained by the limitations of old media (newspapers) but simply by the challenge of being heard in the midst of a multitude in which everyone else is shouting too,” Thompson writes.
“Doxa,” he explains, “is opinion, common belief; it is what ordinary people believe, or could be made to believe, but without the same underpinning of evidence or structured argument.”
“But in the context of modern media,” Thompson says, “‘doxa’ has powerful advantages. Opinions, especially strong opinions, appeal to the heart as well as the head, whereas ‘episteme’ (argument from knowledge) is a wholly cerebral affair. Opinions and opinion formers can be a point of differentiation in a crowded market.”
This is a marketplace of ideas in which the loudest voices are heard, the most attention grabbing sound bites are absorbed, the least complex and easiest grasped explanations are seized on.
Thus, there is little chance of the quiet voice of reason being heard. There is even less patience for evidenced case-building, and little or no care for facts and truth.
Strongly held opinions are like lenses through which we look at the world. They are made up of our assumptions, presuppositions and prejudices, reinforced by exaggerating our own way of “knowing” and undeterred by any awareness of the limitations of our own experience, insight and knowledge.
“Doxa,” which interestingly is the Greek word for “glory,” easily elides into the arrogance of the unteachable, that attitude of superior knowing that disqualifies critique however strong the proof otherwise.
Indeed “doxa,” intensified into strong opinion, is impatient with contrary opinion. That’s a short step away from being impatient with the “other.”
When we want to be heard above the multitude because we are devout believers in our own rightness, the Internet is the most powerful, pervasive and non-accountable weapon at hand.
“The language of (often anonymous) unbridled hatred in which the digital platforms have enabled has damaged public discourse,” Thompson observes. “It often triggers an equal and opposite response so that an entire debate descends into vitriol. And it sets a new dark standard for the expression of strong opinion, which some politicians and commentators are only too happy to meet.”
This isn’t the handwringing sensitivity of someone troubled by plain speaking. This is a seasoned news editor, who has been responsible for the content and tone of news reporting, investigative journalism, narrative framing and media to public communication, for well over 30 years.
What is being lost – and is in danger of that loss becoming catastrophic for human community, society and culture – is the capacity for discussion, debate, information exchange, acknowledged mutual freedoms of speech, what Thompson calls “reasonable levels of mutual courtesy.”
This substantive point about Internet rage is laden with dark consequence.
When it comes to political debate and decisions in democratic contexts, the complexities of the options require detailed information, experienced analysis, and the balancing of probabilities and consequences such that whatever decision is made, is made responsibly and by people who know and own the consequences.
Freedom of speech and freedom to vote depend on being informed in the decisions we make.
The deterioration in public and political discourse is dangerous precisely because devalued language and radically lowered standards of discourse lead to fractured social relations, interpersonal hostility and a breakdown in the fabric of free discussion with agreed rules of engagement.
“A critical indicator that our public language is in crisis is the fact that so many people have in so many different ways given up listening to those they disagree with, preferring instead to prevent them from speaking, or, if that’s not possible, to put their fingers in their ears or abuse or intimidate them,” Thompson asserts.
J.R. Miller’s words come to mind: “God’s voice is of the heart … to discern his voice amongst the voices.”
As a follower of Jesus, I care deeply and seriously about issues of justice, human flourishing, community building, peace, reconciliation and love as the core values of human existence.
In all of these values, speech is a crucial component.
How Christians engage with others with whom they disagree, in our daily world and the online world, is a matter of discipleship.
The Kingdom of God is not built on winning wars of words online, or using words as weapons in our daily conversations, discussions, arguments, disagreements and even falling-outs.
The dangers that are flowing from the corruption of public language require those who are ministers of reconciliation and peacemakers, and those who hunger and thirst for justice, to be fully engaged in resisting hate, untruth, insult and divisive rhetoric.
Followers of Jesus are committed to high standards of discourse, an ethic of language, wise discernment, a care for truth, including our own truthfulness and honest awareness of our own capacities for a fight.
Refusing to listen is one of the most dangerous consequences of a lost ethic of speaking.
James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.