To hear only what one hears, one
— “Esthetique du Mal,” Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens, the poet, died in 1955, but his words could not be more relevant. Too often in our fractured society we seem to lack the ability to hear anyone else’s voice or listen to the variety of meanings in myriad minds. The result is a society of dangerous fault lines waiting to crack open and swallow us: My meaning is valid, yours is fake news; my meaning will make the world a better place for everyone, but that will only happen if we bury yours under a heap of ridicule and scorn. Let’s obliterate those fake meanings so we can create a place that suits only my ideas perfectly.
What about those other meanings? Ignore them. Nobody cares. We’ll go along with the loudest voices. So what if silenced with those meanings are empathy, originality, adaptability, the kind of ideas rich in value to fellow humans? There are plenty of ugly meanings, too, that need to be re-examined before their burial — maybe exposing them to bright light and fresh air might clean them up, making them understandable although still unacceptable.
We’ve seen far too much evidence of the effects of selective hearing, of listening only to words that agree with or reinforce our own meanings. Instead, we need to consider ways to open both ears and minds to the other ideas that surround us, even when we choose to reject them. And we need to figure out ways to encourage others whose minds remain open to hear the varied voices, carefully consider and weigh them, sift through what they’re saying, and then decide which to include in their own reasoned conclusions.
The poet reminds us that there have been “logical lunatics,” the “lunatic of one idea/in a world of ideas who would have all the people/ live, work, suffer and die in that idea/in a world of ideas.”
Stevens could not have imagined how vast the world of ideas has become, how social networks bring those worlds into our homes in a torrent of assorted meanings. Our task is to examine them, think about them, and talk about them with our families and our friends before deciding what’s meaningful from all the voices literally at our fingertips, then including them in our own ideas. They may even convince us to discard some of our older thoughts in favor of these newer ones. We have to avoid being tone deaf, to listen and examine their merit before accepting or rejecting them.
In our own Jewish community there are many voices, which some of us tend to categorize as coming from the left or the right. Among us there are those who listen closely to AIPAC, shutting our ears and minds to dissenters; others hear J Street, accepting that “one meaning alone.” Equally selective hearing often applies to news about Israeli politics and our attitudes towards that country’s leadership. We should try harder to hear each other, to really listen and consider the words.
To our credit, unlike some Jewish communities, we do hear and respect the varied voices practicing Judaism in ways different from our own. We also listen with gratitude to the other faith communities who have supported us through a terrible time and continue to do so against the rising scourge of anti-Semitism. In many heartening ways we’ve grown past the narrowness of hearing “only … one meaning alone.” Our continuing focus must be on that same thoughtfulness as we listen to news media, the social networks, and voices filling our daily encounters. pjc
Anne G. Faigen is the author of five novels, an instructor at Pitt’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and leads book groups at Temple Sinai and Hadassah.