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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Book of Matthew: To ignore is human, to listen divine

Published: September 11, 2009
Section: Opinions

<i>ILLUSTRATION BY Bret Matthew/The Hoot</i>

ILLUSTRATION BY Bret Matthew/The Hoot

On Tuesday morning, President Obama paid a visit to Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia and delivered a televised address that was broadcast to students all across America. In the address, the president talked about the importance of hard work and responsibility, and how those attributes not only lead to success in school, but also in life.

All in all, it was a good speech, one that I think every American student needed to hear. But not everyone agrees with me. In fact, if you were to browse through the media coverage leading up to and during the actual event, you would find that almost every major media outlet decided to label the address as “controversial.”

What’s so controversial about a presidential pep talk, you ask? Well, apparently some conservatives saw Obama’s address as a kind of partisan brainwashing of our youth. I wish I were exaggerating, but there are countless stories of parents who refused to allow their children to watch the address, some going as far as keeping them home from school that day. Wavering under this pressure, a few school districts actually declined to show the address to their students, citing vague reasons such as “parental concerns” or “class disruption”—and thereby depriving all of their students of the opportunity to hear the president speak to them.

Even some political leaders picked up on this discord. Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer, for example, warned that the address would be an attempt by the president to “indoctrinate America’s children to his socialist agenda.” I’m also pretty sure that Rush Limbaugh compared the president to Kim Jong-Il of North Korea.

We have a problem.

This is not the first time a president has directly addressed American students. President George H. W. Bush encouraged students to work hard and stay away from drugs in 1991, while President Ronald Reagan attacked high taxes and touted the idea of a small federal government in 1988. Nor is it the first time that a presidential address to students has faced opposition. Democrats were not thrilled with Bush and Reagan’s attempts to reach out to students (particularly Reagan’s, which was easily the most politically charged address), although their opposition never achieved the ridiculousness displayed by modern Republicans.

The truth is that those of us on opposite sides of the political spectrum are often terrible at listening to each other, even though that is precisely what we must do in order to preserve rational discourse in this country.

In order to illustrate this point, allow me to tell a story about something that occurred last spring.

Those of you who were at Brandeis should remember when another controversial speaker came to campus to address Brandeis students; a man by the name of William Ayers, former 1960s radical and current professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

One of the many anecdotes that Ayers recounted for us that day also involved a controversial speaker—this time a neo-Nazi who came to speak at Ayers’ school when he was a student.

Although it would have been much easier to simply ignore the event, he and several friends decided to go and hear the speaker anyway. They listened patiently and quietly as the neo-Nazi spouted off the typical hateful rhetoric that is to be expected from such people. And then, when it came time for the question and answer period of the event, Ayers said—and I will never forget this—that they all stood up and calmly walked away.

“And that was our protest,” he remarked to us.

Ironically, as Ayers told us this story, several individuals who viewed him as a terrorist stood outside the auditorium with signs and protested his presence, without actually bothering to hear what he had to say. Which, incidentally, is another reason why this story fits so well.

The conservative parents who refused to allow their children to watch Obama speak were equivalent to those protestors. So were the liberal parents who probably did the same thing for Bush and Reagan’s speeches. Their actions were based purely on this preconceived notion that the person they opposed was not only wrong, but also unworthy of being heard. And so, when they all protested, they protested against their own perceptions rather than the reality of what was being said.

We don’t want to be like these people. We want to be like Ayers, who, despite disagreeing with that neo-Nazi on just about everything, respectfully listened to him anyway. And at the end of the day, this allowed Ayers to not only continue to disagree with that man, but to explain exactly why he disagreed, based on what the man said.

It is not easy to listen to people who are your political opposites. More often than not their arguments will send your blood pressure soaring through the roof. And it is becoming increasingly clear that, in this age of loud political discourse, so many of us have thrown up our hands and decided that we just don’t want to listen to the other guy.

We would rather surround ourselves with like-minded friends and acquaintances who reaffirm our beliefs, rather than challenge them.

But we cannot allow our children to become so close-minded. If we teach them that it is okay to ignore someone who may disagree with them—like the president—then we have effectively taught them that it is okay to ignore anyone who threatens to be more than a yes-man. And that sows the seeds for a dogmatic, ideologically divided society.

We must teach our children that it is important to listen to everyone, even those with whom they disagree most strongly.

The act of listening does not necessarily beget agreement, but it does beget understanding, and for that reason it is the keystone of a democratic society, in which all points of view can be fairly weighed and judged by the participants.

This is a far-reaching dream, to be sure. But hopefully we can begin to make steps in the right direction. Hopefully, the next time a president addresses school children, we can all put drama aside and open our ears.