Alexandria's Listening Deficit
Why listening, not developing additional ways to communicate, is the problem. From The Alexandria Times, March 3, 2022
Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) thinks parents need another way to share their views about the public schools. Accordingly, he established an email address, email@example.com, as a parent tip line. Youngkin said the tip line is “for parents to send us any instances where they feel that their fundamental rights are being violated, where their children are not being respected, where there are inherently divisive practices in their school.” There was no indication that the governor is interested in receiving positive comments.
The numerous video clips of Virginia parents speaking forcefully in school board meetings show that an additional way to reach government officials is not a pressing need. The greater imperative is to increase our ability to listen, which is essential to understanding why people think what they think. Social media exacerbates the listening deficit, and the result seems to be that the other side, whomever it may be, is often deemed crazy or even evil.
Compelling evidence that listening is a declining skill exists in the nearly 1,600 pages of e-mails and 230 pages of text messages produced in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that local residents filed after City Council decided in October 2021 to temporarily return school resource officers to Alexandria’s public schools.
The FOIA responses show Alexandrians communicating in ways that ranged from respectful and thoughtful to shrill and abrupt. For instance: Public Official 1: That was fair and looking forward to working collaboratively to make the future better… Public Official 2: Look to someone else. I am done with yall. (sic)
The extensive texts and emails contain communications to and from public officials, and among public officials, while public meetings are taking place. Anyone who has tried to talk with someone who is emailing or texting knows these activities reduce the capacity to listen and absorb information.
Listening is impeded, or at least discouraged, when public officials form and announce a majority position before a public meeting to debate an agenda item at that meeting, as happened with the decision to return the SRO’s to the public schools. Legal experts can argue about whether such an agreement violates the FOIA. More pragmatically, if the fix is in why should anyone listen, and why should there even be a discussion?
Texting while driving is illegal in Virginia—a first offense carries a fine of $125— because it is dangerous. The Department of Motor Vehicles identifies texting as a form of distracted driving. Texting or emailing or social media activity by public officials in public meetings should be eliminated or reduced dramatically because it is distracted governance.
Faux listening also contributes to the listening deficit because it reduces the capacity to truly listen. Some Alexandrians are adept at this. Faux listeners: you know who you are but you may not be listening closely enough to understand your condition.
Listening problems are being recognized as more than individual rudeness, but rather as a widespread phenomenon with significant negatives. The Listening First Project is a nonprofit that seeks to persuade Americans to listen better. More information is available at https://www.listenfirstproject.org/
I propose a four-pronged, modest Alexandria Listening Improvement Program (ALIP):
• A six-month moratorium on texting or emailing to, or by, public officials during public meeting comment periods with messages restricted to essential communications during other portions of public meetings.
• A six-month moratorium on social media activity by anyone in a public meeting.
• A 30-minute cooling off period for each of us before we send that snappy/ snarky email or text about a public issue.
• A commitment by everyone to listen to understand, not just to defend or formulate an argument.
Please send additional proposals or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
The data collected will be included in a public report on ALIP’s progress.
In other words, About Alexandria is listening.
The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006 and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at email@example.com and subscriptions to his newsletter are available free at https://aboutalexandria.substack.com/