Thursday, November 18, 2004

All talk and no listening

I can't help but think, as I listen to people jabber about this Monday Night Football thing, that the discussion is a perfect example of what I have been trying to teach about argument, that the hardest thing to do when participating in a debate is listen. It seems impossible for participants on both sides to do so.

This morning I listened to The Mike and Mike Show on ESPN radio, and again I'm struck by comments by both Greenburg and Golic. Both continually say they "respect" other opinions, then spend considerable time arguing with their guests (many of whom do not agree with them). Then when the guest is no longer on the air, they keep arguing their position. If they really respect what other people believe, then they need to listen. What seems to come out is that they respect only the basic right one has to express an opinion. They, and others, do not seem to respect the belief system or opinion itself.

To their credit, however, they do give real air time for others to actually express those thoughts on their show, and this morning began to question themselves (without reversing their stand, something they do not need to do). I can't say the same thing for the panelists on another show I usually very much enjoy, The Best Damn Sports Show. On the show last night, each member of the group weighed in on why pretty much anyone who was offended or upset about the introductory promo is an idiot. They completely ignored opinions or ideas from the other side, only asking guests who already agreed with them to comment. Chris Rose pretended to "play devil's advocate," but the attempt was obviously a set up for Tom Arnold's humor, not an honest attempt to accurately portray the other side.

On the other hand, there are those that seem to think that the segment signals the end of civilization. Many are are vociferous and even mean spirited. Many employ rather odd reasoning to support their conclusions. They talk about having to explain the scene to their children or how the segment teaches young boys that it is okay to have sex with just anyone. Groups have called for fines to be paid and heads to roll. Most are concerned that pre-adolescents will be irrevocably harmed by this incident. I don't hear too many of these people demonstrating by their comments that they have looked at the subject objectively. They seem to forget that the segment, rightly called "inappropriate" by blushing (and check cashing) ABC executives, featured a talented, but classless football player promoting a tasteless, campy television show (and himself). They pay very little attention to the fact that there is a significant difference between a star or icon and a role model. Most young people, despite the images they see every day, still see their parents as primary role models. In one of my composition classes, I have my students write about role models. I would say that eight or nine out of ten choose to write about about a parent.

Those lambasting ABC might look for the evidence a young boy is going to forego his football dreams to have sex with someone because he watched Terrill Owens appear to do the same thing. I understand that a bombardment of such images can drastically pull a young person's vision away from complete reality . But if a teenager has sex, it is most likely because he/she is under the impression that sex is good. The segment may very well contribute to that idea, but isn't the only reason that teenager thinks so.

The Mike and Mike show features a segment called "Just Shut Up," where listeners are polled to decide which person they believe should stop talking about whatever he (usually) is concerned about. Because people on both sides of this debate seem to listen so little, I'm tempted to shout the same thing. But there is no need, is there? When I began to write this little rant, the sports world was a buzz with this controversy. As I finish, Friday's near riot at the end of the Pacers/Pistons game and Stern's decision have taken center stage. I think it says something ugly about our society that important issues are pushed out of consciousness by the next big thing. Not that this isn't big. It is very big. But expect lots of talking in the coming days and precious little listening. Don't expect the problems to get solved or the real issues behind this or any other controversy to get discussed in any detail. Expect a lot of answers to questions no body asks.

I tell my students that in order to write an effective argument, they must look carefully at all sides and avoid being reactionary. Opinions are important. Informed opinions are better. Opinions developed after listening (or reading) carefully are even better, not only because one is more likely to persuade (provided the reader is actually listening as well), but because one can be at peace with one's decisions having brought not only their words, but also their minds and hearts to a stronger sense of truth.

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