In 2017 we had a national conversation about the ethics of punching a Nazi, but is it ethical to listen to a Nazi? I did it. And I say, yes.
You might disagree with me. Many people do. I have listened to some of those people too. You see, I am a listening advocate. In November 2016, I co-founded with my conservative sister an effort called the American Listening Project—a social media group in which conservatives and liberals are paired to meet over Facebook Video Chat. The group guidelines ask for no interruptions or clarifications, simply attentive and curious quiet. After the meeting, the pair takes a screen-shot-selfie and posts it along with the responses to these three questions: one thing the two have in common, one thing they agree on politically, one thing they disagree on. The whole exercise is designed to take 15 minutes.
I’ve done this exercise close to twenty times. The purpose of the project is not to change the other person’s beliefs. I could not change my sister’s beliefs even if I talked and listened to kingdom come, nor could she change mine. The purpose of the exercise is to recognize another person’s humanity and understand that her beliefs are born from her experience. This acknowledgement does engender change— not of belief, but of understanding.
Listening is a human capacity with an unrecognized power and underdeveloped potential. Our culture values opinion, speech, ego, fame. Less valued are stillness and comprehension, yet such qualities are essential if we wish to develop a culture of ideas and allow a plurality of voices. Without a listener, arguments become polarized, and the arguers arm themselves with more radical and contrary views. Without silence, the reasonable solutions that lie mid-spectrum will languish. Speaking without a listener, or speaking into an echo chamber in which all parties hold the same opinion further radicalizes and polarizes. Partnered with an attentive listener, an arguer can finally hear herself think.
But is there a bridge too far? Are we supposed to recognize the humanity of Nazis? Doesn’t a racist give away his humanity and deserve only public shame and maybe even violent rebuke? I have listened to the views of people who believe listening to extremists only validates their views. Listening to a Nazi, I’ve been told, legitimizes hate. I understand this point of view, but my own experience has caused me to be cautious of unequivocal isolation of other human beings. Community requires engagement, and what better antidote to hate than civility, patience and the offer of self-reflection.
I was at a Starbucks in Monterey, California. I was writing. I might have even been working on the website for American Listening Project. This Starbucks is frequented by international tourists, attendees of the conference center across the street, scientists on their way to the research aquarium, students at CSUMB— a busy, culturally diverse, generally-well-behaved clientele. I had recently had cards made up for The American Listening Project, and I had several times given out cards if I heard people having political discussions in public. Twice, people were willing to listen with me or make an appointment to listen with me in response to receiving a card. It was January, 2017, a few days after the inauguration of Donald Trump. A man entered Starbucks, and all around his large body was an electric storm of threat and agitation. He was tall, white, mid-30’s with black boots and a large bag. His jean jacket had a swastika on it. He seemed to know the baristas, or anyway he spoke loudly to them as if he knew them, and his voice reached beyond them as if all of us in Starbucks were his audience. He was angry about the recent breaking of a Starbucks window o in Washington D.C. by a group called Disrupt J20. He kept pointing to the big glass window that faced out to Del Monte Street, implying it might also get smashed any moment by “liberal crazies.” The tension in the Starbucks foamed thickly. Maybe in response to a question about the swastika on his jacket or maybe unprompted, I can’t remember, he said there was nothing wrong with swastikas. They were symbols of the sun, he said. They were a European symbol, and a symbol of Christ’s victory over death, and there was nothing wrong with being European and Christian. He was loud, and the café silenced in his presence. The baristas looked overwhelmed, but they are paid to be friendly, and they see all kinds, and they took his order and they were demure and polite. He ordered and continued his barrage as he waited for his coffee. I felt myself slow down in response to the tension. Well, this is happening, I said to myself, and I picked up one of my cards and approached the man with the swastika jacket. I shook his hand and briefly introduced the Listening Project. I asked if he wanted to listen with me. I could feel every eye on the Alvarado Street Starbucks glancing up, every breath take collective, tense inhale.
“I’ll meet you outside,” he said.
I returned to the little table I had been using, closed my computer, took up my coffee and waited for him to get his coffee. Then, on the cement steps in front of the Starbucks in the cold-clear sunlight of a Central Californian January day, I listened to an angry, white-nationalist named Karl.
I had enough experience by this time to have faith in the process, and so maybe my faith informed my courage at that point. There is an elation that happens after listening to a human being who was previously frightening. I listened to one man who was an active climate-change denier, who believed that President Obama was the greatest known threat to the American Constitution and recited for me a list of people who Hillary Clinton (whom he called Killary) had personally killed. When I came across this gentleman on Facebook, I was, honestly, horrified by him and frightened of him. But he agreed to participate in the Listening Project. I listened to him while he told me his views on the state of the nation, and as he spoke, I understood that he passionately believed everything he said. If I had argued with him, his views would have further calcified and mine would in equal measure, but as I listened to him, something changed in ME. As I listened, my fear and distrust was replaced by curiosity and then empathy. These were his genuine and heartfelt beliefs based on information he had consumed. Then I took five minutes, and I ranted to him about all my fears and facts about the country, all my numbers about carbon levels and hate crime increases and authoritarian regimes, and he looked at me while I spoke, and it turned out he felt the with same compassion and curiosity about me. After we both took our 5-minute turns of speaking and listening, he and I had trouble finding topics we disagreed on. Believe it or not, it was easier to find values we shared than beliefs we didn’t. (Neuroscientists have studied this response to the power of storytelling. It’s a kind of bond that humans develop that the neuroscientist Uri Hason calls alignment.) My climate-change-denier partner and I were both parents, and we both loved our country, and we both loved freedom, and were both wildly enthusiastic about the First Amendment of the Constitution. After our meeting, he posted this comment: “It’s refreshing to converse with another real person about our views and not go away feeling like enemies, but, friends looking to make America better.” That is the way I felt too.
So I stood with a Nazi on the steps of Starbucks, and I explained the logistics of the Listening Project, and he said he didn’t have time to participate and he was late to work, but he asked some more questions, and then he started talking. He talked and I listened. For 15 minutes, he spoke, and I listened. He said many things which were hateful and frightening, But it is also true that many times when he said a hateful or racist comment, he soon amended it. He would say, “Black people are lazy. But I know not all black people are lazy. And, yeah, I know a lot of white people are lazy too.” I listened. For every radically hateful statement he made, in equal measure, he talked himself out of the hateful things while I stood next to him, quiet and attentive in the sunshine. He didn’t look at me, and he didn’t listen to me. I listened to him the way I had been training to listen. I breathed and made space. I listened with the intent to understand. It was difficult, and it was, frankly, frightening. But I had committed to calm, and I had committed to not arguing. He spoke, and I breathed in what he spoke, and his monologue calmed itself. The loud agitation with which he entered the Starbucks diluted. Frequently, he repeated: “I’m actually a good guy.” Perhaps speaking while somebody listened allowed him to create a new narrative, one that was not isolated but took into account another person, a person he understood had opposing views. I am not sure. I can never know what is going on in another person’s head. But I can know what I observed, and as he spoke and he listened, he calmed. He moderated his outrageous comments. As he came to the end of his monologue, he said, “Wow, you are a good listener.” We exchanged cards. He walked up the street with his coffee and bag and jacket with the swastika on it.
I sat down on the steps. My knees were shaking.
I don’t know what it feels like to punch a Nazi. I’m sure my knees would shake equally. But I do know what it’s like to listen to a Nazi. I understand that my listening to Karl has likely not changed his beliefs, but it did change the relationship between me and him. Before I listened to him, we were threats to one another. Fifteen minutes of listening on the steps of Starbucks built a narrow bridge between us. In 2017, former white supremacist Derek Black wrote a piece in the New York Times about his journey out of the white-nationalist movement. Describing the transformation of his beliefs, he writes, “I began attending a liberal college where my presence prompted huge controversy. Through many talks with devoted and diverse people there — people who chose to invite me into their dorms and conversations rather than ostracize me — I began to realize the damage I had done. Ever since, I have been trying to make up for it.” It was not exclusion that allowed Mr. Black to change his views but inclusion. It was not a punch to the face that convinced him to change. It was conversation.
Yes, we have to stand up against hate and intolerance. Yes, we cannot abide violence or the threat of violence. Shame and activism and shows of strength are all appropriate responses to hate. But I encourage us to think of more nuanced responses to use as well. Our religious traditions teach us to love our enemies, to do good to those who would wish us ill, to turn, with awareness, the arrows of Mara into flowers. I’m not completely sure I did the right thing in listening to Karl, but I have a hunch that it was better than doing nothing.
Let’s have a conversation about the merits of listening, even to the most maligned and radical among us. Tell me what you think— I’m ready to listen.