Obstacles to the Dialogue on Racism: Listening

“People often don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

Obstacles to the Dialogue on Racism: Listening

The above quote has stuck with me for the last 8 years now since I first heard it in seminary from my Biblical counseling professor. I’ve honestly wrestled to live this out in my life. At certain times I’ve done well and others not so much. In light of the social turmoil happening in the U.S., I’m reminded of this truth and want to offer a short (or perhaps not so short) reflection.

However right or wrong, the pattern of conversation that seems to continue to take place after events like the killing of George Floyd goes like this. Liberal activists decry the incident is representative of a culture of discrimination, conservatives point to certain statistics to counter that claim, the personal character attacks and defenses of victims and suspects follow, liberal and conservative Christians both concerned for justice but with different ideas of what that means begin to bicker about what the “Christian” response is or what the Church should say.

Over the last decade this pattern of conversation hasn’t produced any change to the contentment of many and as result the tone of conversation has begun to evolve. More recently I have read and heard a lot of black voices and Christian leaders to call on the Church (generally white evangelicals) to first listen to their black brothers and sisters in Christ and those in the broader black community, to do so with compassion. The complaint is that all too often the immediate response of the white Church is either to immediately jump to advocacy or denial, all the while the emotional trauma of the black community is neglected.

There’s no doubt that listening without judgment is a lost art, regrettably to the detriment of civil discourse in the U.S. I for one must confess that as a natural skeptic, and as a man, my tendency is to immediately ask questions and provide a solution. Both responses, while well meaning, are often perceived to be callous or indifferent. Perhaps this is a poor analogy, but I’m reminded of a popular video in which a couple is discussing a problem the woman has been experiencing. You begin by hearing the woman explaining all the difficulties she’s been experiencing recently such as headaches and her shirts are being torn. As the woman’s face comes into view you can see that she has a nail stuck in her forehead. At this moment the man points out the nail in the woman’s head. She immediately snaps back at him that it’s not about the nail and that she’s upset because she feels like the man is not really listening to him. The man apologizes and then proceeds to sympathize with the woman. She appreciates his sympathy and they try to kiss but the nail pokes the man in the head and they both recoil in pain. The scene ends with her snapping back, “Don’t you say it,” alluding to the man wanting to address the nail again.

I think this scene does a good job of reminding us the complexity of human communication. Humans aren’t robots for whom when there is a problem you can simply input the correct data to produce the desired outcome. Humans are created for relationship that transcends a mere exchange of information. And in the complexity of the human experience facts are just one part of the larger picture of just and loving communities.

Now my fellow conservatives will argue that though there may be multiple parts, facts are still the foundation of any productive communication. A popular concept in Christian thought is that facts, or truth, should direct your feelings and not the other way around. So when you’re discussing anything difficult, in their mind you have to address the facts before you address feelings. As popular conservative pundit Ben Shapiro (an orthodox Jew) often says, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”

One of the underlying assumptions of this statement is that feelings are corruptible and subjective whereas facts are not. As a Christian I certainly recognize the reality of the brokenness of our hearts as a result of sin. “The human heart is deceitful above all, desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9). But Scripture also warns us on many occasions of how the mind can be perverted as a result of our wicked hearts. The wicked suppress the truth of God’s creation and God gives them up to their depraved minds (Rom. 1:18-24), the Greeks imagine themselves to be wise and yet are fools, and certain teachers continue to gain knowledge upon knowledge and yet are without truth. All this to say that we must be careful to not place too much confidence in reason alone because reason is inherently a partly subjective enterprise itself.

As I discussed in an earlier post, it is easy for us to imagine that facts just exist out there independently of human cognition. Suppose they do. Even so, the interpretation of those facts must happen within the human mind of a fallen and sinful creature. Because of this reality, I’m at least wary of speaking as if the facts I lay claim to speak for themselves. I think those facts do exist objectively in the world, and I think the objective truth of those facts can be communicated objectively, but I think there is also reason for us to consider that our claim to facts is not without its own scrutiny and questioning.

Knowledge is a subjective-objective endeavor, susceptible to corruption in a similar way that our affections are susceptible to perversion. So, in the same way that we question the motives of our heart, I think we need to be suspicious of our own reasoning because Scripture gives us clear examples of our reasoning being distorted by our own depraved hearts. What seems so obvious and logical to us could just very well be our wicked hearts justifying indifference and callousness toward grave social injustices. Just because as a conservative I see most liberal reasoning being guided by emotion and not fact doesn’t automatically mean that my own reasoning is somehow grounded in fact. When two people have different beliefs about something, both can’t be right at the same time but both could be wrong at the same time.

I’ve spent more time talking about knowledge than I intended to so let me backtrack and conclude with this. I think people who have genuinely experienced and understand grace will themselves be gracious toward other people; whether that be toward enemies or simply toward people with whom they disagree. I think someone who understands grace recognizes the major role the heart plays in understanding and will take steps to be gracious and patient in conversations where the other person seems guided by their own heart rather than truth, because they desire the understanding of that person.

For reasons that are beyond the scope of this article at this point, humans maintain walls of distrust when they feel wounded and hurt. Perhaps it’s a survival instinct, I don’t know. Regardless, you can’t reason with people who suspect your intentions are to perpetuate systems of injustice. Many liberals, I feel, don’t care about statistics conservatives use as evidence because they (liberals) are convinced that conservatives are manipulating and/or cherry-picking the data to justify their wicked hearts in hopes to perpetuate systems of injustice that advantage themselves. If you think about it, it’s basically what conservatives believe about liberals. Conservatives don’t trust liberals because conservatives believe liberal reasoning is justification for radical policies which would perpetuate systems of injustice (i.e. abortion, sexual promiscuity, envy, laziness, feminism, etc.).

All too often we refuse to listen to one another – liberals and conservatives, black and white, rich and poor – because we simply don’t believe the other person really cares. Liberals don’t care what conservatives claim to know because liberals don’t believe conservatives care. Why would you listen to someone who you are convinced doesn’t care? You most likely wouldn’t. People often don’t care what you know until they know that you care.

I don’t have any suggestions at the moment as to how to convey to someone that you truly care and are listening. Many people would probably encourage you to simply tell the other person, “I’m listening.” I’m a man and a skeptic, so personally, trite emotional invitations like that seem disingenuous and pretentious to me. But for people who love small talk, perhaps that’s exactly what you needed to hear.

However you phrase it, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.


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