Who’s Listening?

The other day, I happened to see on the satellite directory The American President, a favorite movie of mine, despite it’s being dated, its political inaccuracies, and its hokey ending. One of the reasons I like it is that it offers hope – that and the line that the President (played by Michael Douglas) levels at his ultra-conservative political opponent about the ACLU, words to the effect that, if you’re so big on the Constitution, why are you so opposed to people exercising their Constitutional rights.

But… as I was thinking about the movie, I realized that, in one very crucial way, almost all political movies are dated because they embody the idea that a candidate can change people’s minds by speaking, campaigning, or even outlining absolutely accurate and verifiable facts in an equally accurate context.

Today, most people don’t listen very much, and very few listen to anything that might change their opinion. As events in Washington, D.C., demonstrated last week, that becomes a serious problem for society as a whole when people believe in events that did not happen based on inaccurate or non-existent facts and do not listen to anything outside their “bubble.”

This problem isn’t just in the political sphere. It’s everywhere. Almost all the teachers I know report that one of the biggest problems they face is that students don’t listen well, and that even when they try, they have a hard time retaining facts and information. Part of this, I suspect, is because they want to be entertained and spoon-fed answers and resist any instruction that requires more effort on their part. This wouldn’t be such an enormous problem if it weren’t for the fact that fewer and fewer of them read, and less and less reading is required in most school systems.

“Personalized” news just magnifies the problem, as has the isolation resulting from the Covid pandemic, because people tend to stay within their personal comfort zone.

Will people ever get back to listening?

I’m generally an optimist, but this is one area that challenges that optimism.

4 thoughts on “Who’s Listening?”

  1. Postagoras says:

    I agree that folks like to stay in their information bubbles, but I don’t think it’s about teaching. I think the resistance to facts comes from the skills used in creating the echo chambers. Marketing techniques and Darwinian competition for eyeballs have created these information ecosystems. They give folks a sense of community and a clear definition of who’s NOT in the community. This is a winning tactic with many human beings.
    It’s pretty much impossible to counter passion with facts. Rhetoric can change minds with a combination of passion and facts, but it ain’t easy. In your books, you’ve often commented about when it’s not sufficient to use logic to solve a problem.
    And people can change, for the better, or worse. A decade ago, there were no Trump voters. Now, there’re millions of them.

  2. Postagoras says:

    I am not denying the experience you report from teachers you’ve spoken to, but I think that’s a different issue.
    Yes, people seem to have shorter attention spans and require more “pizazz” in teaching.
    But in addition, people are resistant to memorization because they can look it up.
    I used to know tons of phone numbers. Not nowadays.
    Years ago, an older engineer asked me about using calculators in school. He told me that in his day, they were tested on arithmetic using slide rules. I told him that since manual dexterity was no longer needed in arithmetic, the teachers tested students on concepts.
    That was a challenge for teachers who were expert at drilling students on arithmetic.
    Today’s teachers have a similar challenge.

    1. But… as I’ve noted more than once, there’s a basic knowledge requirement in every field, that is, knowledge that is necessary in order to know what to look up or knowledge required because when it’s needed you don’t have time to look it up. Too many students are resistant to learning even that kind of knowledge, even when that need is demonstrated. Others understand the need, but either think it doesn’t apply to them or don’t want to put in the effort. Yes, there are some teachers who don’t want to change… but what we’re seeing in the U.S. is that more and more fields that require intensive learned knowledge are attracting more and more foreign students because U.S. students either won’t or can’t put in the effort to learn those basics. And, from what I’ve seen an awful lot of those U.S. students who won’t are men.

  3. Tom says:

    “I’m generally an optimist, but this is one area that challenges that optimism.”

    There may be more than three reasons for pessimism about people “listening” but here are my selections:

    1) The enforced “personalization” of the electronic world; specifically communication and selections/suggestions “tailored” to our last searches.
    2) The choice of living with constant background noise: a progression from the transistor radio, to portable tape/CD players, to the “smart” phone with ear buds.
    3) The lack of learning/teaching comprehension.

    It seems to me that the authoritarian regimes are going slowly with censoring electronic communication. That is probably because they see the opportunity to use the internet and, more specifically, the social media for the old fashioned “mind washing” tool that would be of use to them.

    I do not see a change from progression to anarchical isolation within one’s own “bubble of babble”. The better societal future is dependent on human self-control with regards to ability based life goals and the recognition of personal responsibility.

    Either we evolve into a world such as in “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster, or, the worlds of the “Foundation” series by I. Asimov (which can then lead to such situations as depicted in the ”Corean Chronicles”).

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