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How Glenn Beck Convinced Me to Change

A few weeks ago, I was driving back from Austin in my roommate's car by myself. I was scanning through radio stations, trying to find something that wouldn't bore me, when I happened across one of the many conservative talk radio shows that populates this area (my normal choice is NPR, but it was in the middle of one of those ridiculous jazz improv/elevator muzak shows). This particular radio show was discussing the new AZ Immigration Bill, and within the five minutes of listening, I had heard more than enough denigration of illegal immigrants and maligning of character to last me a week. In anger, I looked down at the radio and gave it a mighty one-finger salute before changing the station.

I don't like myself when I get angry.

Though the story about the radio might be kind of funny (I mean, who flips off an inanimate object?), the lesson I've been slow to learn is that this reactive anger is not loving. No matter how right I may feel my argument is, it means nothing if I am unable to speak so in love and grace.

One thing I tend to forget in arguing is my positions were not arrived at easily. I was not convinced by comments on a blog, or by someone yelling at a TV screen. I believe my currently liberal leaning politics are the result of years of change, starting with friendships I had in high school, and things I learned in college and graduate school. There has been a good nine years worth of change behind what I write, and a good couple of years of research, living, and experience.

However, when I react to others, I tend not to afford them the same sort of benefit of doubt. When I write emails to my parents about Glenn Beck's latest "dangerous" statement, I forget that they have 36 years on me, and have probably spent similar amounts of time thinking about their issues.

Recently, I did what I do in my downtime: I got involved in an internet debate over SB 1070, Arizona's immigration bill. Having spent the last year developing a my own unique viewpoint on nationalism, borders, America, and immigration, I, of course, jumped into the debate with fury. "How could people hold such a view of Hispanics?" "Wow, that's a really ignorant statement!" "That's just so wrong!"

Of course, my arguments were much more fleshed out, and much more supported than those statements, but they are certainly things I said to myself as I put together my arguments. Bolstered by my smart friends who I love and respect joining in and saying that I was right, I continued the debate probably past the point it was doing any good. While I did achieve some concessions, I didn't convince anyone.

I've been realizing lately that my style of argument may need to change. Having been a debater in high school, and a naturally good writer, I tend to approach my arguments in a way that I'll lay out my case, attempt to respond to counter arguments in a way that bolsters my own point, and I rarely make concessions. This type of argument comes naturally to me because it allows me to be selfish: I don't have to actually listen to what the other side is saying. I just have to look for holes in their argument.

It's really hard to change this when we genuinely believe the other side is wrong.

It's darn near impossible to change a mode of thinking when it's an issue really close to one's heart, such as faith or politics.

But, as I've been slowly realizing, the only way to true community is not through divisive political arguments, but through genuinely listening and hearing out the other side.

This past weekend, my parents were in town for my graduation with my MA. On the way down to Austin, as is inevitable when my parents and I get together, politics came up. As it is common nowadays, the topic was the AZ immigration bill. I explained to my father that part of my objection to the bill is that it offers no provision for victims of trafficking - an illegal is an illegal is an illegal, regardless of their means of entrance into the country. My father listened to this explanation, and I could tell that he was thinking about it. He told me he hadn't thought of that angle, and it troubled him, because he knows it's an issue close to my heart.

This is the type of reaction I would like to model. Rather than just saying the words "I hear what you're saying," I want to actually hear people. I want to listen; I want to think about why they believe what they believe. I want to consider the whole of the person, not just the argument made. And maybe, just maybe, if I do this, I will eventually be able to listen to conservative radio and Glenn Beck without wanting to give the one-finger salute.


  1. In regards to your closing statement...probably not. I agree that listening is key. Listening well is the only reason my parents and I don't fight about politics. I understand that they have well thought out positions and they understand that I have the same. But even with all that respect and understanding, Glenn Beck is still a tool.

  2. I hear what you're saying. :-)

    As a former debater, I can definitely say that being taught *how* to carefully listen to the details of an opponent's argument, and consider *how* to respond toward the audience/judge, helped me a lot. That's what I still model in teaching rhetoric, actually. I find that reacting against an opponent--looking for that squared-off place where we can just push back and forth, and one will fall over eventually--doesn't produce much that's meaningful. Clearly stating arguments does.

    But you're right also that we have to go beyond that, in our whole set of communication strategies. See, even the framework I described above assumes a final stage of argument before a decision-maker; but discourse continues before and after such moments, as does our involvement in it.

    So there is much to be said for being "swift to hear, slow to speak"--even for those of us who initiate speaking and create localized discursive moments for a living, and as a calling.

  3. Carrie - Hahah, thus the qualification of "maybe" in that last statement.

    Peter - A couple of years ago, a friend complimented me by telling me that "You're a good listener." I was quite surprised, because I've never been that good at listening. I think being a teacher and being one who "creates localized discursive moments for a living" has made me even more aware of the need to listen. It's very interesting in class to get a discussion going, sit back and watch it, and then try to steer it toward more productive ends in terms of understanding and listening to another person's argument. It seems to be a lot of the point behind the research paper in 1304. The problem is: I can watch it from the outside and see how listening, recognizing and taking into account the other's argument helps, but damned if I don't make the mistake of not listening well when I'm actually participating. The desire to create an "Other" of the opposing side just so you can create a more solid argument for your side is...well, tempting. But, like you say, counter productive to any real discourse.

  4. I find that for me arguing can easily become a matter of pride, where I become more concerned about being right than about giving and receiving truth with grace.

    We all have to learn what's worth fighting over, and also learn to shut our mouths. Or else we might all become belligerent loudmouths like you know who.


    Hey, credit where it's due...


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