Thursday, March 3, 2005

40. Are you listening to me now?

The American Civil Liberties Union, for a variety of reasons, is often the subject of debate and controversy. Heating up the controversy is Fox News host Bill O'Reilly with his assault on the organization that has endured steadily over the last couple of years. I do not usually comment on political talk shows because of the understanding that they are appealing to a certain audience. For them to retain ratings, these "political analysts" must stir up controversy by making outlandish claims or analogies. For if they become boring, they lose ratings and then their jobs. Controversial claims often have one side vigorously applauding while the other protests in anger. In the country's current state of ideological and cultural warfare, the battle lines have been drawn as both sides fight to have their viewpoints represented in the media. They fight, because sadly, in a country that has become addicted to thirty-second sound bites, if people hear it enough, they begin to believe it. It is this notion that I have taken offense to O'Reilly's comments and offer here my rebuttal.

O'Reilly has claimed in the past that the ACLU is the "most dangerous organization in the United States right now, ...they're like, second next to Al Qaeda." He labels it as "fascist organization" and then states that Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin would be card-carrying members. Recently, O'Reilly claimed that the ACLU is a terrorist organization, "terrorizin' me and my family."

To begin, we must understand the basis of these quotations. The reference to the "most dangerous organization," is an unoriginal reference to Rob Boston's book about Pat Robertson being the "most dangerous man" in America. Also unoriginal is the reference to Al Qaeda, Hitler, and Stalin. It seems that whenever the right is frustrated over a political issue, it resorts to name-calling and analogous references. Other ideological references to the left include labeling them as liberals, socialists/communists and atheists, as well as accusing them of being unpatriotic and now, classifying them as terrorists. I would guess that O'Reilly's frustration stems from the fact that the ACLU acts as a hurdle for the majority he represents- those that desire to trample on the rights of others in the name of "god and country." Moreover, while it might have been of significant impact in the past for the right to use these terms in times of frustration, its effectiveness has worn off and the left have become numb to these references. If nothing else, perhaps a bit of creativity is in order.

My opinion is that the ACLU, more than ever, is one of the most important organizations in the country. No other organization, whether one agrees with all its issues or not, has the power to hold the government accountable for its actions. In that manner, the ACLU has attempted to hold the government accountable for the Patriot Act and the treatment of its prisoners. How can an organization that speaks against torture and illegal detention, be a terrorist organization, as O'Reilly claims? What other organization will seek accountability for widespread allegations of torture when the Bush Administration and Congress have repeatedly denied any sort of independent commission? Regardless of the outcomes, America needs the ACLU- if nothing else but to let the government know that someone is paying attention.

The ACLU also fights for religious freedom, racial equality and tolerance. Yet, O'Reilly makes the statement that Hitler would be a card-carrying member. The murder of millions of Jews does not seem to be a characteristic of one endorsing religious freedom, racial equality or tolerance. O'Reilly is clearly aware of such misrepresentations, as well as others, yet in the interest of public manipulation blurts out these slanderous terms in hopes that an uninformed public will adopt their use.

The ACLU is a nonpartisan organization that fights for the rights of all Americans as secured in the Constitution and its amendments- particularly the Bill of Rights. It does, however, or I should say naturally, often represent minority viewpoints. This representation should offend only those, as I have often written, that do not understand (or accept) the difference between majority opinion and civil rights.

It is important to note that the ACLU fights not only for religious freedom, but more importantly (and here is where the criticism often surfaces) to define the role of religion in society as set forth by the Constitution. The ACLU, at one time or another has protected the rights of individuals of all faiths- including Christians. It holds accountable government action and preserves the freedom of speech. It fights for voting rights and against racial profiling. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, it is one of the few organizations in America that recognizes and protects it against the "excessive tendencies" of majority rule. In apparent agreement, James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers, "measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority."

As a member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio's educational committee, I work to inform the public of the mission of the ACLU. The ACLU represents a number of issues, and with each issue, there are degrees to which one may or may not support it. The issues are difficult ones; in fact, society's most passionate issues, and individuals must open their minds to consider both their religious and civil values. Unfortunately, as an example of their response to the negative press it has received from the conservative media, and in particular the Internet, they have had to initiated a fact/myth page on their website to dispel the rumors that have been flagrantly started.

I am sure that O'Reilly has many fans that have relished in his attack against the ACLU. I only ask for objectiveness, and a rebellion against easy-to-make, inaccurate, and hideously offensive comments that are made with the sole intent to influence public opinion without discussing the issue. While the ACLU does take sides on abortion and perhaps other issues that one may inherently disagree with based on religious beliefs, it also defends many principles that I would like to think that most Americans agree upon. At the same time, it is important to understand why the ACLU stands up for these principles. They are not abstract beliefs; they are protected civil liberties that are rooted deep in American law, history and culture- and are set forth, or being set forth, in legal precedent.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, "The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer." It is the second part of this quotation of which I will focus on- the part that seems to be becoming increasingly negligent as a matter of courtesy and respect.

Ever have someone ask you what you thought about a subject or idea, and then before you can finish your answer, sometimes even before beginning your answer, he or she cuts you off and tells you what he or she thinks? Alternatively, perhaps, he or she misses your point completely or even starts doing something else before you can finish your answer. I have noticed lately, that as a culture, we seem to be getting worse at listening. This observation spans across a plethora of venues- from classrooms and boardrooms to business meetings and casual dinner conversations. And I am sure that, at least to some degree, we are all guilty from time to time.

The art of listening encompasses several different aspects, such as hearing only a part of an answer or idea, cutting someone off before hearing a complete response and not really listening at all.

The thought of hearing what we want to hear can be considered across a couple of domains; however, in this example I am concerned with what is selectively heard (not believed). Consider a conversation with someone in which you compliment them repeatedly, adding just a hint of what you might believe to be constructive criticism. It might go something like this, "Thanks for the wonderful dinner. The turkey was great, the potatoes were excellent and the salad was the best I have ever had. The dessert was a little sweet for my taste, but overall we had a great time." Those engaging in selective listening would only hear that the dessert was a little sweet, missing the theme of the message.

The worst aspect of not listening, at least personally, are those individuals that will be so focused on making his or her point that they are not listening to what is being said to them. These individuals are easy to note because their reply to your statement often has nothing to do with what you just said. Moreover, and worse, these individuals will often not even let you finish what you are trying to say. They will cut you off and get back to their point, not surrendering the time or courtesy to offer a credible comment or argument. I think they sometimes ask the question just so they can tell you what they think, not really because they care about your answer. Television has added to this aspect by broadcasting short debates in which the winner is often the one that presents his or her views the loudest. Furthermore, neither side is afforded the opportunity (because of time restraints) to recognize or concede a good point made by the other. Debates like this offer no chance for compromise, only the marketing of ideas or agendas.

Almost as frustrating as being cut-off when trying to make a point, is trying to talk to someone who is doing something else at the same time. Have you ever talked to someone on the phone in which you can hear them typing away? The slow reaction time to your comments further indicts the multitasker. Asking an off-the-wall question or making a strange request often serves as confirmation, especially if the individual agrees. In some respects, this lack of listening might be a cultural phenomenon due to information overload and the multitude of media outlets. As individuals try to accomplish more and more each day, tasks are often performed simultaneously. Busy individuals get used to reading headlines, skimming articles and surfing the web. I hate to admit it, but I have been guilty of trying to drive while reading and talking on the phone.

Business meetings can be dreadful as they often combine several poor listeners, each adhering to his or her own agenda. We have all been there at one time or another and recognize the scenario. One individual is finishing his or her work, or looking over his or her calendar. Another individual or two are constantly cutting off the other speakers as soon as they have something he or she perceives to be interesting or relevant to say. Other people are missing the point; commenting only to their agenda. Meetings of this sort test the patience of all those involved, long before personalities are even considered.

Listening is an art form, at least in that it takes practice. In fact, if you have had a conversation with a good listener, it is almost awkward in some respects. There is often an uncomfortable gap in the conversation as he or she waits to see if you have completely answered the question or made your comments. Furthermore, a gap often indicates that he or she is taking a moment to consider what you may have just said (as opposed to already having a response or comment prepared regardless of your opinion). Finally, a good listen offers a compliment to the speaker, by, as Henry David Thoreau perceived to receive, truly attending to his or her message.

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