(About a 4 minute read)
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” — George Bernard Shaw
I suspect future historians will now and then speak of us as an “Age of Wonders”. The wonder of our electronics. The wonder of our communication technologies. The wonder of our medical advancements — especially in the field of mental health. And so forth.
But sadly, I suspect future historians will also speak of us as an “Age of Willful Stupidity”.
If so, they will doubtlessly say our age began over 100 years ago with the Stupid Bolshevik Revolution in Russia that was soon enough followed by the Rise of Stupid Fascism in Italy. And the historians are bound to point out that the willful stupidity has continued largely unabated straight through to today’s many Stupid Denial Movements.
I suspect future historians will write whole libraries on that one theme alone — willful stupidity. And I expect — I actually expect — that somewhere in those libraries there will be a book or article with an insightful footnote saying, “The first casualty of willful stupidity is the art of listening.”
Listening or reading — in this context, they are the same thing. Forty years ago, I took a university course in the art of listening well — most often called today “active listening”. It was a game changer. Today, I feel I was all but clueless how to listen before taking that course, for I do not suppose myself born with any outstanding talent for listening.
A key take away from the semester was that most of us most of the time listen to respond rather than to understand.
A consequence of listening to respond is that we so often think we understand what is being said when in fact our sense or grasp of someone’s meaning is no better than a mere ricochet off the true meaning of their words.
The chances are huge that the last time you felt misunderstood is a recent memory. It almost doesn’t matter how simple or complex your words are. You can say, “A black cat crossed my path today”, and it will not be long before someone reads into your words more than your words really say.
I am gradually learning not to blame people for being poor listeners. Good listening is work. And so many people today already work 10 or 12 hour days. It seems rather unfair to demand they always put in the work necessary to get anything harder to get than a knock knock joke. In most ways, I have mellowed into simple acceptance and empathy when it comes to folks misunderstanding me or misunderstanding anyone else.
Yet, I can’t say that’s true when it comes to willful stupidity. Near as I can see, willful stupidity can be extraordinarily dangerous — too dangerous to tolerate. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the brilliant Christian theologian, correctly identified willful stupidity as precisely what enabled the Nazis to come to power.
Bonhoeffer also seems to have been of the view that willful stupidity renders people absolutely incapable of reforming themselves.
Basically, he asserted that an open and free society that wishes to save itself from willful stupidity must — if things ever come to a head — resort to the ruthless repression of willfully stupid people. Think trials. Convictions. Jailings of, say, White Supremacists simply for being white supremacists.
I hope Bonhoeffer was wrong about that. I hope there are less repulsive means of dealing with willful stupidity. But I do agree with Bonhoeffer that willful stupidity can poise — and often has poised — an existential threat to democracy, freedoms, and liberties. To say nothing of human flourishing and happiness.
I have almost no clue how to combat willful stupidity. But if I had a child, I would want to do whatever I could do to make that child immune to becoming a willfully stupid adult. And one thing I would try is teach the child how to be an active listener. For it seems to me that it is difficult to be willfully stupid and yet still understand what you read or hear.
Not impossible. By no means impossible. But perhaps more difficult.