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  • Pat Libby

Are you listening? How to cure the empathy crisis

We’ve become a nation of people who have forgotten how to listen. This deafness to opinions that differ from our own is permeating our schools, our workplaces, and society as a whole.

And, if we don’t learn how to listen, we’re going to find it a lot more difficult to solve problems at work and in the world.

Listening skills begin in the classroom where, ideally, critical thinking develops over time. But now, schools are rife with cancel culture that has either been imposed by the community, parents, teachers, or the students themselves.

To illustrate the point, PEN America tells us that in a 9-month period spanning July 1, 2021 through March 31, 2022, 1586 decisions were made to ban books in libraries and/or classrooms across the country because they spoke to issues of race and sexuality. Last year, a survey of more than 37,000 students at 159 colleges found that 80% self-censor and nearly half are “somewhat” or “very” uncomfortable expressing their views on controversial topics in the classroom.

I’ve seen this behavior recently in the workplace where senior staff dismiss the concerns of people they supervise as being “uninformed,” even though the staff’s views are based on first-hand experience.

My husband, who is a keen observer, points to the demise of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 as a beginning point for this unravelling.

If you’ve never heard of it, the Fairness Doctrine, which was established in 1949 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), required radio and TV broadcasters to present equal time to opposing views of an issue. As professor Victor Pickard* writes in the Washington Post, it “operat[ed] under a view of free speech that privileged an audience’s rights to diverse voices and views over broadcasters’ narrower First Amendment protections.”

He tells us “Early campaigners sought to prevent broadcasting from becoming saturated by reactionary voices that drove profits but hurt democracy. Their aim was to preempt biased and homogenized programming that typically occurs when corporate monopolies dominate highly commercialized media systems.”

When President Ronald Regan abolished the fairness doctrine – including vetoing a bi-partisan bill to reinstate it – do you think he imagined the world that would result? A world in which the voices of the media owners dominate the messaging?

So, what's a concerned person to do?

1. Set expectations or ground rules for your home, school, workplace, or nonprofit Boardroom that encourage people to listen with intent, give each other the benefit of the doubt, and express themselves without fear of being cancelled. In many cases, we’ve become insulated and polarized without even noticing it, so policing discussions for respect and civility is a must. Practice makes perfect.

Jon Shields, a self-described conservative professor and free speech advocate outlined some terrific ideas on this topic in a recent New York Times editorial.

2. Practice seeing all sides of an issue. Many liberals thought it was ludicrous for children to attend school in person during the height of the pandemic and many conservatives thought students would fall behind and get depressed with an all Zoom learning experience. If you reflect on what you thought at the time, and look at what the studies show now, would you have shifted your view?

Would the pandemic be better contained today if everyone understood how vaccines are made and why they work? As I’ve written previously RESIST THE ASSUMPTION.

3. Write a note to your senators and congressperson asking them to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. If enough of us – from both side of the aisle – do, then maybe we can bring some more unity to our divided world.

Change starts with you!



Pat Libby is a nonprofit consultant and author of The Empowered Citizens Guide: 10 Steps to Passing a Law that Matters to You and The Lobbying Strategy Handbook: 10 Steps to Advancing Any Cause Effectively from Oxford University Press. She has served as an academic, senior executive, board member, and consultant to innumerable nonprofit organizations and foundations for more than three decades.

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*Victor Pickard is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication where he co-directs the Media, Inequality & Change Center. He is the author of the recent book "Democracy Without Journalism?" From Washington Post.


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