With humanity at a crossroads today, a book says deep listening to people around us could be the way ahead
Intolerance is everyone’s favourite word. Most of us have become adept at practising it, especially on social media, with cusswords, trolling, vitriolic comments, or planned persecution. The more self-righteous among us do not hesitate to use sticks, knives or loaded guns. The equation is getting fairly simple: if you don’t stand with me, you must be standing against me. The world is more diverse and interesting every day, yet many of us are happy to live in our little comfortable bubble where everything is the same. The Internet has brought the world on to single shared spaces, but also sown seeds of mistrust in people using those spaces. Result: many lonely people, with their minds closed to the “other”, the “different”.
Listening, Arun Maira thinks, can be the great healer. Deep listening, not only to people like us, but more importantly to people not like us, has the power to change the world. Maira is a leading strategist and was a member of the Planning Commission when it had opened its doors to civil society and before it became Niti Aayog. In his third book, Maira grapples with an issue that may seem philosophical, especially in the context of an introduction by the Dalai Lama, but is also key to how great affairs of the state, society or businesses can be better managed. He says the profound question today is “how can human beings live harmoniously and in harmony with the one earth that is our common home?” The answer: “by deeply listening to each other, understanding each other’s perspectives, and finding inclusive and sustainable solutions for global challenges”.
What will politicians do then, you might ask, or that gangsters would become jobless. It may sound simplistic, but Maira’s thesis makes eminent sense. In large global corporations, listening and giving feedback and other difficult conversations are seen as key to how employees can grow well and integrate their careers with the company’s goals. In a democratic process, irretrievable mistakes are made by not listening to what people are really saying—all democratically-elected governments have to bow out of power when they can no longer read the pulse of the electorate. But the cultivation of listening skills really begins with listening to the stranger within us, our real self.
Capitalism encourages putting people in boxes. The overwhelming identity of people then is as a consumer or producer. Marketers help fine-tune these divisions. But what profit motive do we have in viewing people through a typical lens? None, really. We are just conditioned, based on our own personal experiences and histories, to viewing everything through gender, cultural and epistemic (the method of acquiring knowledge, such as what and where we study) lenses. Once we start becoming aware of these lenses and filter accordingly, many of our problems of listening to the other point of view go away. The Buddhist philosophy of mindfulness seeks this clarity, of emptying the mind and focusing completely on the task at hand. Listening, without preconceived notions and with wide respect and full attention, the Dalai Lama says, is the first of the three wisdom tools in Buddhism, the others being contemplating and meditating. Asians, for several reasons, are more attuned to the lack of a desire for control than the other side of the globe, probably why there have been fewer great wars fought this side in the recent past.
The identity issue is haunting the world today, especially America and India, where people ignore that each of us is really a combination of several boxes. Writing in Harper’s recently, Zadie Smith described her children as “quadroons”, with green eyes and yellow skin, a bi-racial mother, white father and black grandmother. I was born Bengali, Brahmin, Hindu, half-Bangladeshi and half-Maithili, and I, too, have a quadroon daughter. In reality, I am only an Indian abiding by its Constitution. In hundred years or so, race or caste may be all but annihilated, but till that time, what option do we have but recognising and accepting this irreversible trend?
The need for citizens to listen to each other is much greater in a country that has pledged diversity and secularism. Which makes Maira’s plea so essential to heed. He writes simply and lucidly, combining great analysis with the lessons of history. Indeed, as he says, humanity is at a crossroads, and we can’t find a common goal—and find we must—without better understanding our co-travellers and their desires. Maira’s book, as intended by him, raises more questions than answers. I have half a dozen. How can we create institutions that are structured to foster collaboration among people? How can we encourage forums where the ordinary citizen’s voice is heard? How can we write laws that speak to people, take into account their genuine problems and concerns? How can we ensure that we uphold the Constitution that guarantees to protect the rights of every single citizen as they are? How can we ensure that we elect governments that listen to us, and not lecture at us? How can we create societies that care? We need a national discourse on these issues.
Paromita Shastri is a freelance writer