Listening to the other side

Without the twins, i.e. scepticism and doubt, no questions will be asked. There will then be no discussion and debate, no advance in the arts and sciences. The frontiers of knowledge will freeze rigid and civilisation will stagnate. Listening to the other side is an essential component of the democratic procedure. Democracy calls for majority rule, and the minority will routinely be outvoted. But in a parliamentary dispensation it must be heard.

When two or more persons talk together, they are having a conversation. All discussion is conversation but not all conversation is discussion. Two persons, let us say, are talking about the weather. They agree that it has been cold and dry in most parts of the country; so far this has been a conversation. Then one of them says this kind of weather is good for the health, the other says it is not. Each proceeds to give reasons for his view. Now they are having a discussion. This exercise will be useful if each side listens to the other before framing his answer. If they do not, they are having neither a conversation nor a discussion; they are simply making noise.

I watch periodically Jim Lehrer’s news and analysis on an American television channel, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). After reporting the main news of the day, he brings up an important public policy issue, makes an introductory statement, and then invites comments from two or three of the guests he has invited to the show. They address the issue for three or four minutes each and subsequently they are invited to comment on each other’s interpretation. Jim Lehrer may also state his reactions to each participant’s observation. Each of them speaks when it is his turn, and none speaks while another is making his statement. He remains quiet even if he has strong objections to it. He waits for his turn to express his reservations. The entire show proceeds in an orderly fashion to the viewers’ enlightenment. The same procedure is followed on other news and talk shows such as those presented on CBS, ABC, and NBC.

Nothing like this happens on most of the news and talk shows on Pakistani television channels. The host introduces the issue to be discussed and, instead of holding his peace, he prompts the participants to give the answers he would prefer. He and his guests interrupt one another and often enough they speak at the same time. In contesting each other they become agitated, raise their voices, and speak at the same time. All of this makes it difficult for the viewers to know what is being said. The show fails in its mission of promoting informed public opinion.

Listening to the other side, especially if the interaction is adversarial, would seem to be at work in many forums. In the legislative assemblies, for instance, it is a member’s responsibility to listen to others before voting pro or con the proposition in debate. Listening in this context is important because the adversary may be saying something that is not only correct but valuable, and one may want to incorporate his interpretation in one’s own. A person has to be open-minded if he is to listen to the perceptions of ground realities and trains of thought different from his own. Being open-minded requires scepticism and doubt concerning the validity of one’s own position. Religious preachers are not receptive to the doctrines of other faiths. The Deobandis, for instance, do not want to hear the Barelvis because they are convinced that the latter are wrong in regarding the saints as intermediaries between man and God.

Without the twins, i.e. scepticism and doubt, no questions will be asked. There will then be no discussion and debate, no advance in the arts and sciences. The frontiers of knowledge will freeze rigid and civilisation will stagnate.

Reading is a widespread and more readily available alternative to listening. We can listen only to those who are alive and kicking and have access to forums from which they can address audiences. There can be little doubt that if Aristotle had not read Plato’s Republic, he would not have written his celebrated work, Politics, which came as a rejoinder to Plato. Likewise, if John Locke had not read the Leviathan, he would not have written the Second Essay on Civil Government, which was his rejoinder to Hobbes. Either eventuality would have been a loss to students of political philosophy. The willingness to listen to the other side implies a certain amount of respect for the adversary. It implies that he is an opponent but not an enemy. The ends on both sides may be the same; differences may relate largely to the means of achieving them.

Access to radio and television has reduced many people’s inclination to read. Reading habits vary from one class of people to another in the same society. In some places the generality of people do not read anything at all. Many of those who read newspapers look at the front page headlines, weather forecast and business news, but they have no interest in the editorial pages. Fewer people read magazines and periodicals and most of them do so as bedtime reading. Even fewer people read books. Professionals may read serious publications, but most others will likely read fiction. Way back in the 1960s a great many people in Pakistan read Ibn-e-Safi’s spy novels and short stories and within weeks of their publication booksellers ran out of copies. Recalling my own experience, I may say that apart from being enjoyable, good fiction can work as an effective instructor of the language in which it is written. I found Charles Dickens (for instance, the Pickwick Papers and A Tale of Two Cities) to be a particularly good instructor. Even without a pencil and paper on hand, one absorbed some of his indirectness of speech, art of understatement, humour and satire as one read along.

Listening to the other side is an essential component of the democratic procedure. Democracy calls for majority rule, and the minority will routinely be outvoted. But in a parliamentary dispensation it must be heard. Members of the minority sitting across the aisle from the government benches have the same status, rights, and privileges as members of the majority party in the House do.

By Anwar H Syed

The Daily Times

The writer, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, is a visiting professor at the Lahore School of Economics

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