An edited version of this piece first appeared in The Age.
My girlfriend didn’t believe me. “Did you really say that to your students?” she asked incredulously. “They’re first years in their first week!” It’s true. I had sounded like a dark and over-ripe Mr. Chips.
Earlier that day I’d held my first class in politics and communications. I thought some heavy advice was in order. “You’re born in a cage,” I started ominously, “and you’ll stay in it because there’ll always be a gap between your experiences and the words you have to describe them. More, you’ll only ever be able to occupy one skull—you’ll never completely know what it’s like to think or feel like somebody else.”
Suddenly there were a lot of fresh but troubled faces turned towards me and I had a crisis of confidence. Perhaps this monologue was best reserved for those scotch-fuelled 3.00am sessions with friends and nicotine. But I had to continue, I’d already begun. “But, you can enlarge that cage by developing ways to communicate and your confidence to do so. That starts with expanding your vocabulary. The strength—and intimacy—of your relationships in life will largely depend upon your ability to express yourself warmly and precisely.”
In truth, I was just paraphrasing my tutor from my first class nearly 15 years prior. His words had stuck. But I failed to mention the heartbreaking coda: that it might not matter terribly, because few of us listen anyway.
I’d thought sloppily about this for a while, until the melancholy wisdom of former columnist Mark Dapin appeared in a piece this week and brought my musings into relief. Dapin realised that writing a column brought its fair share of abuse—that’s par for the course—but there was something deeper, sadder and disorienting lurking within this enmity. A relentless pattern of reflexive misunderstanding.
For any one of us, not least the vain writer, the fear of being misunderstood induces anxiety. But it happens everyday, inevitably. Confusion, inarticulacy and self-absorption forever conspire to render our gestures, speech and, yes, newspaper columns, unrecognisable upon reception. And clear and precise communication is no safe-guard.
We rightly celebrate our bustling marketplace of opinion. But behind its clamour are grubby and calcified prejudice, pettiness, entitlement, suspicion, hostility and frustration. This—and not reason—are the principal constituents of our political discussions. This is what we are. And it means we squander some of the blessedness of our democracy because we do not truly engage.
I’m happy for people to disagree with me, as I’m sure Mark Dapin is. But to disagree with someone you need to have engaged them. To have engaged them, you need to have listened. And to have listened you need to have made a difficult, conscious decision to be aware of all of the calcified selfishness and suspicion and frustration that colours what you see and hear. And then you need to ask yourself: what’s being said here? What’s this really about?
In my experience, this rarely happens. It’s a disturbing moment when you realise that it doesn’t matter what you write and how clearly you write it, people will refract it a thousand different ways. Perhaps the author is dead.
I wrote a piece about the callousness of my moral superiority as an under-grad—it was a piece about growing up, essentially—and was called a neo-fascist and war monger. I wrote a piece about the psychological and emotional reasons behind our politics—that it is not always the pretty outcome of reason—and was called an apologist for John Howard. I wrote a piece arguing for greater respect and sobriety in our discussions and received rabid comments in response.
You get the point. I’m not bothered about the abuse—it stirs me, actually—but I’m disheartened by the fact that the responses rarely demonstrate any connection to what I’ve written. Readers are constantly betraying deep flaws of comprehension, as they respond not to what I’ve written, but what they wished I had written that would properly excite their gall. It’s dull and pathetic— columnists have become the avatars for all of their readers’ grievances.
I’m not asking for your sympathy. I’m asking that you begin to think about how well you listen, because if you can’t do this, you’re in a bad place. It’s chastening to think of our great marketplace of ideas as a lame tragicomedy of people talking over each other in breathless cycles of misunderstanding. And, yes, I include myself in this analysis.
Perhaps we are hardwired to misunderstand each other—as the late David Foster Wallace wrote, each of us are “the realest, most vivid and important person in existence”—but we’re also built with the self-awareness to try to correct it. Before you cut off your friend, or post a comment here, meditate on your own baggage and self-centredness and how it might distance you from the beating hearts all around you.