Listening Only to an Echo of Yourself

My hope for mutual learning when persons who disagree with one another engage in respectful conversation is an impossible dream if you can’t get those who disagree into the same room.

In an opinion piece in the April 20, 2008 issue of the Los Angeles Times, titled “Talking to Ourselves,” Susan Jacoby tells of her experience of delivering a lecture on the history of America secularism at Eastern Kentucky University. Concurrent with her lecture, the Campus Crusade for Christ organization on campus had scheduled a competing lecture, reflecting their stated strategy to “counter-program secular lectures on college campuses.” As a result, both lectures were attended almost exclusively by persons who already agreed with the speaker. Jacoby’s conclusion is that “Americans today have become a people in search of validation for opinions that they already hold,” demonstrating a strong reluctance “to give a fair hearing – or any hearing at all – to opposing points of view,” wanting to hear only an “echo” of themselves.

The internet and cable TV have surely magnified this tendency to only listen to an echo of yourself. Whatever your opinion about a given issue, you can go online and find volumes of support for your position. And, if you find enough people online who agree with your viewpoint, it too easily serves to confirm your fixed position, and you are tempted to believe that your position must be true, even if it is blatantly false. And, the same listening only to an echo of yourself takes place if you get your cable news exclusively from FOX News or MSNBC.  An exclusive diet of either Sean Hannity or Ed Schultz will never lead you to entertain the possibility that your point of view on the issue at hand may be wrong, and that you may actually learn something by listening to someone who disagrees with you.

This tendency for persons to only want to hear an echo of themselves came home to me personally in a recent program that I shaped and implementing as an Adult Discipleship offering in my home church (American Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa). In light of the growing migration of Hispanic persons to Sioux County, a number of us have been seeking ways to support and encourage our new neighbors. My initiative focused on my conviction that current immigration law needs to be reformed. In that context, our church offered an eight week series on the theme “Christian Perspectives on Immigration in Northwest Iowa” that included conversations with some of our Hispanic neighbors, discussions about relevant biblical and theological principles, a conversation with a local immigration lawyer, and conversations with local residents who are actively engaged with the Hispanic community (educators, social service providers, employers, and law enforcement officers).

This series was well received, extremely informative, and reasonably well attended (ranging from about 30 to 100 attendees per session). But there was a lot of “preaching to the choir,” since those who attended were typically very sympathetic to the challenges faced by our new Hispanic neighbors. Despite this series being broadly advertised, including personal invitations sent to the pastors/parish priests at over 100 churches in Sioux County, few people, if any, showed up who would argue for strong measures to identify and deport illegal immigrants rather than considering possible pathways to citizenship. And there are many residents of Sioux County who take that position, led by our congressional representative, Stephen King.

In a nutshell, we were often just listening to an echo of ourselves. A golden opportunity for mutual learning among those who disagree with one another on this contentious issue was squandered. A lesson we learned is that it just does not work to issue broad invitations, with the hope that those taking both sides of the issue at hand will gather together for respectful conversation about their differences, especially when, as in this case, the church sponsoring the series has a reputation for greater openness to diverse views on contentious social issues than most of the other local churches.

What can be done to counteract this tendency to only listen to an echo of yourself? Rather than just issuing open invitations and hoping that “they will come,” a better strategy is to identify friends and acquaintances who you already know are likely to take different views on the issues at hand, and invite them to a smaller group conversation about their differences (which could also include a general invitation to those who would like to initially listen to the presentation of alternative perspectives, and then engage the presenters in conversation).

In our particular case, as a possible follow-up to our immigration series, a small sub-group of attendees is considering the possibility of drafting a statement on our perceived need for comprehensive immigration reform, and then personally inviting a small group of friends and acquaintances who we believe will disagree with our statement to meet with us to discuss our statement as well as an alternative statement that they may wish to formulate, with a larger audience also being invited to attend.  If this materializes, I will report in a later Blog musing whether we were successful in getting beyond our tendencies to want to only hear an echo of ourselves.