Tag Archives: listening

Tribalism and the tone of current political debate

It’s commonly accepted that US politics has been polarised for quite a while. People openly identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats; most people tend to associate with those who share their political opinions; media outlets appear to be divided along partisan lines so that people can catch up with what is going on in the world from a perspective that already aligns with their own.

And so it seems that the temptation to disagree with someone simply because they belong to the other side, or to support someone simply because they belong to your side, is becoming harder and harder to avoid.

Using words like ‘left’ or ‘right’, ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’, as the sole basis for dismissing another person’s point of view is essentially saying that you disagree with them because they are on the other side to you. That you don’t even need to listen or take into account their perspective because you have already decided that it is opposed to where you stand. That the world can be neatly divided into two opposite and opposing perspectives, one of which is completely right and one of which is completely wrong.

It’s tribalism.

And it’s often marked not by the language of debate, but by the language of war.

The end result of this, I fear, is what we’ve been seeing more and more in the lead up to this year’s presidential election. It is particularly exemplified in the farcical (but not funny) situation where we see people attempting to defend the behaviour and views of their political party’s candidate no matter how far he strays from what they have previously stated to be their core values. It doesn’t seem to matter how terrible he acts or sounds, the fact that he is on their ‘side’ overrides everything else. From the outside looking in, it’s almost impossible to understand.

Obviously there is much more I could say about the trainwreck that is Trump v Clinton, but for now I want to confine myself to this one idea and the question I have about its impact going forward from here. What will the fact that this tribalism and deep division between two sides, with little room for nuance between them, is being played out in such a public and global way mean for our future public interactions?

What is the pattern being set for how civic debate is to be conducted?

While here in Australia it is still quite rare for the average person to identify themselves day to day by which political party they vote for, the same kind of tribalistic language does seem to be creeping in. I’m certainly seeing words like ‘leftist’ and ‘right-wing’ increasingly used to dismiss an opinion in place of reasoned responses to coherent and valid points of discussion. And these kinds of words are almost always used in an attempt to shut the debate down. To dismiss the other point of view for the sole reason that it is perceived to be the ‘other’ point of view.

It bothers me greatly and to be honest it generally makes me want to disengage. We are talking about the exchange of ideas in a free society, people putting forward their views on what they genuinely believe it best for all of us. But as soon as we start using the language of warfare and tribalism, when we put one another into two simple boxes and stop listening to those who are not in the same box as us, then it seems to me that we have all lost.

How can we find ways to move beyond the simplistic categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’, ‘us’ and ‘them’?

How can we recognise that good ideas can come from both sides of the political aisle, and that when we listen to one another we might even find middle ground? How can we change the tone from one of war to one of genuine engagement, accepting that we can all learn something from one another, even from those with whom we disagree, if we will really take time to listen?

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Some thoughts on racism, listening, and the gospel

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in Australia for the last week or so, you’ve been hearing about Adam Goodes and the issue of racism in sport/society. So much has already been said, I wasn’t sure if I had anything to add. But a few things have really challenged me and got me thinking about racism, listening to the voices of the “other” and how this all connects to the gospel.

The first is how easy it is for white Australians to make simplistic pronouncements about what is and isn’t racist. Here’s what I think: if you are a member of a majority group that has historically been responsible for the mistreatment, oppression and belittling of another group of people, and a member of that group is telling you that your actions are hurting them by perpetuating some of those attitudes and feelings, then you don’t get to tell them that they are “playing the victim card.” You don’t get to decide whether how they feel is valid. You don’t get to define what is going on. Your job is to listen. Not to rush to make statements or excuses or minimisations or give your perspective. To really listen. To hear what they are saying. And then to ask yourself how you are going to respond.

As appalled as I have been by some of the comments I have read and heard from white Australians this week, I’m hopeful that this is a moment in our history when we might finally be starting to listen. Listening to the voices of our indigenous Australians and realising there is something we need to really hear. That we have not yet dealt with the ongoing consequences of our shared history.

And so as well as appreciating the insights and responses of people like Charlie Pickering or Mia Freedman or this incisive outsider view from an ex-pat American, this week I have actively sought out the voices of indigenous Australians who are speaking about this issue. I want to hear what they have to say. I want to listen.

If you haven’t heard these voices, here are some you might want to take some time to listen to.

Stan Grant’s article in the Guardian: “Estranged in the land of our ancestors, living on the fringes of a rich society – parse your words, but we see only race in the attacks on AFL player Adam Goodes.”

Dickie Bedford’s opinion piece in the Australian: “It reinforces our scepticism that while Australia — a country we all love deeply — pretends to embrace us, it fails miserably when it comes to taking real and significant steps towards truly understanding our culture, our lore and our traditions.”

Charlie King’s excellent question to Andrew Bolt: “How would you feel if you sat in that position and looked at the world through the eyes of Aboriginal people?”

Warren Mundine on the Drum sharing his personal experience with racism in Australia: “This week has been a really dreadful week for me because it has brought up so many memories … This is what it [racism] does to people. It actually cripples you within your life and stops you from doing things and being able to function as a human being.”

* And this blog post from an indigenous man which takes the opposite view to the others and made me feel quite uncomfortable, but was an important reminder of the subtle racism I can easily fall into of assuming that all indigenous Australians share the same opinion or a single story: “For an urban blackfella like me, I hate the fact that all of a sudden my opinion is relevant … If someone is genuinely looking for a discussion, they are easy to tell, but most people just want me to be the token black who validates their own feelings on the matter.”

As a Christian, I’ve also been continuing to reflect more widely on how we can better listen to our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. The family of churches I am part of recently welcomed an indigenous church into our (overwhelmingly white) association. The pastor spoke to our gathering and his key message was for us to listen. To hear and understand what a big thing it was for them to join us, given our shared history. To hear the questions and fears and concerns they have about maintaining their identity even as they participate as part of our group. To walk a journey of listening to them rather than too quickly jumping in with our “help” or “solutions”.

Then a few weeks ago I had the opportunity at a dinner with some ministry friends to ask an indigenous friend if he would share with the rest of us some of what he thought we needed to hear from indigenous Australian Christians. With some good-natured joking about his role as spokesman for “all Aboriginal people everywhere,” we had a really amazing hour just listening to him. One of the most profound things he said, that has been challenging and inspiring me ever since, was this:

As Christians, we believe that the gospel becomes “enculturated” – that is, as the gospel is lived out in every people group throughout the world and throughout history, we see different aspects of it and we realise more of who Jesus is. So what do you have to learn about the gospel, about Jesus, from your Aboriginal brothers and sisters?

For people who believe that every tribe and tongue is part of God’s incredible vision for the future in Christ, what a great question. And I know that trying to answer it is going to take a lot more listening on my part.

One of a series of paintings by an indigenous Christian artist telling the story of the gospel
One of a series of paintings by an indigenous Christian artist telling the story of the gospel

Resisting the Echo Chamber

A post I wrote for Tabor MTC’s blog “Manna” on the challenges of listening to different perspectives and voices in a cultural context that encourages us to only engage with those we “like” …

echo One of the highlights for me at last year’s Rethinking Conference was a talk by Mark Scott, Managing Director of the ABC (and a Christian). He spoke about the fragmentation of the mainstream media and the impact of social media. And he introduced me to the idea of the “echo chamber,” an enclosed space where sound reverberates.

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