Monday, February 18, 2008

On Misreading

I wonder how carefully people read what I write? At the end of last week, I cross-posted my "Dear Senator Clinton" letter and my entry on "Speaking of Guns" on my Huffington Post blog, and have been amazed by the response--82 of them on the former and 65 on the latter--some quite complimentary, others in disagreement, and a number purely hostile. I've also had something of an exchange, over the weekend, with a reader who objected to what he saw to be an unwarranted attack on Hillary Clinton.

Which all interests me because a surprising amount of this comment simply missed the points I was making: that if the next round of primaries confirms the momentum for Obama, Clinton should not resort to "any means necessary" to secure the nomination by manipulating the political machinery, risking the November election in the process; and that the rhetoric around gun ownership is quick to go over the top after incidents like last week's--though I broadened this argument to speculate that the rhetoric on the right is generally more venomous than the rhetoric on the left.

What many of those who read these two pieces seemed to believe I had written was rather different from what I actually wrote--that I somehow despised or disrespected Hillary Clinton or that she should immediately withdraw from the race; and, of course, that I was a knee-jerk opponent of the "right to bear arms," the gun lobby, and gun owners in general. No. In the first case I was talking about listening to the voice of the people, in the second about the way we talk about the issues, not the issues themselves.

I suspect that in our haste to get things done and move on, we tend not to read but to skim through what's written and grab onto a few "keywords" and a general impression of the writer's position. I know I'm often guilty of that myself, when reading a newspaper or a magazine, or even a book. We don't have time for the subtleties of language. We read what we want to believe the author has written rather than his or her actual words, and then treat our own reading as what has been said. When I stand accused of having "lambasted" Hillary Clinton, for example, I know that my carefully chosen and respectful words have not been heard as they were intended.

The same applies, I'm sure, to the attention we pay when we listen to others. Our attention span is short, we want to get our say, we respond too quickly to what we imagine has been said. And here, as always, the Buddhist teaching is useful and wise. Take a breath. Pay attention. Practice equanimity and Right Speech--and for that matter, Right Listening. Take the ego out of the equation... I don't know about you, but I still have much to learn.


robin andrea said...

You have articulated why I don't write about contentious issues. I know where I stand, and that is often enough for me. I don't like to engage in discussions that are hot-button issues for people. There's a line from a Simon and Garfunkel song that goes, "People hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest." I think that goes for how they read as well. Still, I admire people who try to grapple with the tough issues.

lindsey said...

In one of my classes we're learning about an issue that relates to this post, I think. We're talking about communication methods employed in the West and how it differs from those of the East. Here in the West, we use our language like a phalanx, pushing our points head-first onto the other person for them to try to combat with a phalanx of their own. Whoever has the strongest line of thought wins, but it's all out on the table. It's a very ego-centric way of talking. The strength of my words vs. the strength of your words.

The East, on the other hand, speaks in metaphors, references to stories, and other indirect ways. That way, in order to understand the other person's point, you have to think about it and almost internalize it to understand what they're saying. It isn't just about hearing what the other says and finding the weak point in the line to attack; rather, it's about speaking in ways that help the other person understand your line of thought and see whether or not they actually disagree with it.

Perhaps some of the people reading your Huffington Post entries were seeing your writings as a phalanx, looking to flank you with a phalanx of their own and thus win the battle instead of engaging in honest dialog, which might force them to think about what they believe and open themselves up for the possibility of being wrong.

Mark said...

Sorry, Peter (and Lindsey). The previous post wasn't Lindsey, it was Mark. I didn't realize her account was logged onto my computer when I posted. My bad!

thailandchani said...

Mark, I still agree with what you said.. and am trying to train my thinking differently. Typically, I just plop it on the table with no frills and let people do with it what they will. Agree, disagree, whatever.

I always talk about contentious issues and it is hard to imagine not doing that.

Small talk is boring and dull.

People scan though. That is absolutely the case.

Probably for the reasons you stated.

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

This is an excellent post, Peter. Thank you.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks, all, for the good reading, and the responses. Robin, I certainly honor the choice you make: I think your conversation is so rich in its connection with nature, what more or better is there to say. A very interesting response, Mark, and one which brings some useful light on what I was trying to address. Chani, I love the way you "plop it on the table with no frills." The best kind of writing, to my way of thinking. And for Saint Nick, I do appreciate the compliment.

Paul said...

As usual, you make an interesting point. And the comments of others reinforce it and add texture. Looking at it from a Buddhist perseptive, it underscores the nature of delusion.

All suffering in the world is the result of delusion, that is, we all miss the point. I don't know to whom I can attribute this quote (Kalu Rinphche, is one source I've heard), but it turns up a lot in Dharma talks: "Wherever there is perception, there is deception." Regardless of who said it first, it seems universally true.

If nothing else, the purpose of a spiritual life is to understand this and cut throuh the delusions so as to view the world as it really is. And, perhaps, that statement is just evidence of my own delusion.