The limits of listening

“In every voice.  In every language.  In every story, is the information we need for the world we want.”  Pleased with myself, I continued: “In them is truth, in them in wisdom, in them is a path to peace that we can build, word by word.” 

That was me on a Sunday afternoon, searching for a statement for what I am about: the fundamental truth on which my professional and creative life stands.
Within minutes, I was pulled off my soap box by my friend Martin. “Huh!?” he said, with furrowed brow. “Well that’s clearly ridiculous. Lots of people are full of nonsense. They just repeat what everyone else says!”


And what I’ve learned since then?  He’s right, and repetition isn’t the worst of it. Repetition can even be good—like back when the idea that women had brains equal to men made people laugh so hard they had to dab their eyes with a hanky. Or that black people had a worth and value equal to white people. Or that slavery should be abolished. Throughout history, some ideas have had to be repeated and repeated. Repeated when considered mad; repeated when considered dangerous; and repeated even after the people who’d scoffed started saying it was their idea in the first place.


So I’m not worried about repetition. The broken record has provided the soundtrack to the greatest hits in human rights history, and the idea that all people are worthy of dignity and respect will probably still need to be repeated long after you and I are fishing dentures out of a tumbler.


No, what’s been bothering me isn’t repetition, it’s hate speech and lies. It’s saying untrue, contradictory, unkind—and even downright vicious—things to make you feel bad for existing, and make other people regret your existence, too.


Through misrepresentation and derision—along with deprivation of the very rights they claim for themselves—the hateful person aims to destroy the self-confidence and strength of their target, and the respect they enjoy from others. Since confidence and cooperation are critical to human thriving, the hope appears to be that you (or whatever other person, group or organization is being targeted) will become the pitiful person they prefer you to be. Their tactics range from overtly cruel attacks on your character and competence delivered in private, to subtle undermining based on half-truths and falsehoods in public, and so much confusion and contradiction that the head spins. All aim to convince that you—or whomever they dislike—has no value. No skills, no talents, no ideas worth hearing. A waste of time, a waste of space, an object of contempt to be eliminated.




What are we going to do? 


Silence them, of course! There’s an argument for thatbut you won’t hear me making it. Under international law, freedom of speech can be constrained only if it amounts to incitement to violence. It’s hard to prove, and easy for people who want to silence inconvenient truths and people to take action that kills the very freedom that enables you and I to thrive, and all of society to move forward. If we want the work of Mary Woolstonecraft and Martin Luther King; Ghandi and Mahmoud Mamdani, we’re going to have a few unsavoury characters too, pumping out dangerous nonsense. After all, in the words of Taylor Swift, “haters gonna hate.”


So how do we manage the risks of the very freedom we need to thrive?  How do we protect (ourselves and others) against the price of that freedom: the threat of being diminished in confidence and capacity, peace and prosperity by the haters?


Here are some tips. 


First, in the words of my former boss – a senior United Nations official – “I’m finding I have develop a thick skin.” If a man protected and supported by layers of professionals and front office staff in the upper echelons of a global organization has to deal with these unsavoury characters, there’s no escaping it—you and I are going to have to do it too—starting with developing a thick skin. A skin that senses hate speech and misinformation, and, in the surpising words of a VP at a major global corporation, “burns it to a crisp!”


Second, speak. Say what you know to be true, from your own experience. Respond with observable, verifiable facts. 


Third, accept reality: “haters gonna hate.” Unpleasant people exist, and sometimes, we’ll have to deal with them. Winston Churchill was called a senile old fool; booed and yelled at in the British Houses of Commons, then voted out of office. Nelson Mandela was thought to be a dangerous and reprehensible character, then imprisoned. Steve Jobs was fired. So too Oprah Winfrey and Anna Wintour. Mahatma Ghandi was shot. So too Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Thomas Paine was famously “maligned on every side”. Jesus was crucified.  If they came back from the dead to give us some advice, it might be this: “suck it up, sister.”


Fourth: “shake it off.”  As Taylor sang, “haters gonna hate / baby I’m just gonna shake.” Shake that hate off a thick skin that protects a deep knowing within: you deserve better. Including the better feeling you can access right now by dancing. That better feeling will restore the strength you need to do your work and deal with the haters like a champ. So dance, my friend. Bounce that head, tap that foot. Phone that friend. Take that walk. Go for that run. Read, sing, nap. Eat the damn chocolate. Drink the dramor the green juice or whatever. Do whatever it takes to make sure that—in the words of my own beloved fatheryou “don’t let the b*stards get you down.”





Broomstick Harry Potter GIF - Broomstick HarryPotter Up GIFs




Learn: Need help to identify and ignore weaponized words? Try these guiding questions:

  • Does the content include false statements and fabrications?
  • Is the content a personal attack, or an attack on the dignity of another person who is apparently reprehensible, useless, incompetent, etc? 
  • Does the content insist or imply that you or she or he or they aren’t entitled to the same rights and opportunities that the speaker it claims for themselves? 
  • Does the content state or imply that you or he or she or they don’t deserve – and don’t you dare claim – rights that are protected under international law or your own organization? 
  • Is the content composed of a combination of true, but contradictory statements?
  • When you or the targeted person speaks, does the hateful scowl, roll their eyes, or tut in an exaggerated manner? Do they look at their phone, out the window, or otherwise try to communicate lack of concern and respect for the speakers’ views?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes,  “BURN IT TO A CRISP!”  And then. . of course. . burn up the dance floor. . .


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