Throughout my short-lived, fast-paced life as a budding youth in search of the great truths of the world, I’ve often found in many of my classes a stagnation in the art of unified discussion that reaches grander conclusions. I can recall countless times in English classes where, if a hypothetical map was used to track the progress of discussion, it would look similar to that of a hundred failed attempts to pin the tail on the donkey. Connecting the dots would only create a bubbling, evolving amoeba. After class, I would often leave more confused than before, with a deformed amalgamation of various thoughts that amounted to nothing more than the thoughts of 15 to 20 individuals.
We live in a society more conducive to debate for the sake of debate rather than the diffusion of ideas to come to a greater understanding of where we come from. The simple art of listening to listen has turned into listening to respond. In what is beginning to look reminiscent of recent public debates, our discussions with one another have become less like discourse between intellectuals and more like shouts at walls that emit audible murmurs. We become so focused on putting forth our own thoughts at the cost of perceiving others’ opinions, as time breaks for us to catch our breath before we continue our extended narrative of inner stream of consciousness. We simply don’t listen to each other anymore. This social disconnect prevents us from capitalizing on the breadth and depth of the great minds we surround ourselves with, allowing our short time together to spoil and fade, forever stuck behind the rhetorical manifestation of our inner ego. By frequently arguing about hot topics on campus without taking genuine time to fully understand the full story behind the opinions of others, there is no way to achieve whatever it is we want to achieve. Instead, we are forever stuck in a vicious cycle of hollowed discourse solely as an attempt to flex an expansive verbal lexicon.
I believe that as intellectuals at elite institutions, we receive this unspoken entitlement that has taught us to treat our own thoughts as more credible than those around us. Our egos have been inflated since the great age of toddlerdom, frequently being told that we are “smart and special.” While to some extent this mantra has held true in the past, it does not give us any right to completely disregard the thoughts of others or to view their thoughts as any less. While one may argue that the thoughts of some individuals are completely outrageous and don’t deserve to be heard, there is a difference between engaging and arguing with one such person in genuine discourse and swiftly disregarding their opinion to further one’s own agenda. By being told we’re special, we believe that no one else is. We become so lost in our intellectualism and lost in ourselves that our own thoughts seem to be the be all and end all to all discussions. A famous scene in Annie Hall comes to mind when Alvie Singer, played by Woody Allen, is stuck in front of a man endlessly pontificating upon the grandeur of movies and theater in lofty, intellectual rhetoric, much to the chagrin of Singer. This reaches a boiling point when Singer breaks the fourth wall in common Allen fashion, actively shaming the man to the audience. This grabs the man’s attention, leading him to tell to the camera that he has an opinion and a right to say it, to which Singer responds, “Do you have to give it so loud?”
In a David Foster Wallace This is Water form of philosophical solution-solving, I do propose we step down from our pedestals and treat those we surround ourselves with as people like us. In a forever-immortalized commencement address at Kenyon in 2005, he calls for a return to cliché and simple observations of life, as these happen to get lost in the grand scheme of intellectual pursuit in academia. By removing ourselves from our unknowing self-centeredness, we can begin to see others as real as we are, and thus begin to appreciate their thoughts as coming from a place as real as our own source of thought. The abandonment of our pseudo-solipsistic mindset will likely serve to be beneficial in establishing more genuine connections with our fellow intellectuals. By regarding those we surround ourselves with as fully fleshed people, we can listen with the intent of listening and reach this greater understanding we strive to achieve. And by listening to listen, maybe our discussions on campus can amount to more than the sum of our individual thoughts. For once, we can work together as equals.
Minh Tran ’19 is from New York, N.Y. He lives in Sage Hall.