the destruction of defensiveness: listening is hard

If you haven’t had the privilege of being around fighting kids in a while, allow me to reassure you: They still do, usually for ridiculous reasons. Another fun fact: Kids are wildly hypocritical. And so are we.

For instance, one of my kids is fond of calling his brothers “tattle tales.” It makes him furious when he gets outed for being less than awesome.  In his mind, no sin of his is even remotely as egregious as the act of exposing said sin to a nearby adult. He can’t deal, and it makes him not only blind to his original sin, but fuels his righteous indignation at the poor kid who reported him.  He gets mad at the conversation instead of the act that caused the conversation.  Even worse, despite his firm stance against others disclosing his bad acts, he is known to throw a brother under the bus. In other words, he who hates a tattle tale is, in fact, a tattle tale.

While defensiveness is common, it is lazy, destructive, and selfish; we have to do better. 

Thank God we have outgrown such childish ways, right? Not so fast, my friends.  We know that defensiveness destroys collaboration; indeed, we see how destructive it is in others.  A friend snaps at another friend, but explodes when she is called on it instead of saying, “yep. My bad.”  A subordinate at work fails at an assignment, and rather than admit it and learn, he makes excuses.  A leader who is interviewed gets the inevitable question, “Any regrets?”, and responds with deflection, doubling down on bad choices as “the right choice at the time.”  It is easy to see how ridiculous others are when they fail to listen and then reflect on how they might become healthier.  In someone else, it is easy to see the willful ignorance required to deny a bad outcome or one’s own role in it.  It is much harder to avoid defensiveness when our own relationships (or sense of right-ness) are on the line.

In the last year, voices deemed hysterical or whiny or angry by those in the American majority have been elevated.  By some miracle that I don’t fully understand, many Americans now listen to women who claim #metoo, and are wondering what can change to ensure men do not treat women as objects to be assessed, groped or raped.  Many Americans now listen to those who are pleading for black lives, and are wondering what can change to ensure black lives do, in fact, matter.  Many Americans now listen to rural voices who have lost jobs and respect, and are wondering what can change to ensure we don’t ignore voices outside the city center in planning for our future.  Many Americans now listen to the voices that claim Confederate statues actively erase important parts of our history, and are wondering what can change to ensure we recognize and hear our whole history.

But many others feel attacked when those voices utter a word.  When we hear the story of another as a personal attack on ourselves, we don’t hear those voices.  Defensiveness and listening are mutually exclusive activities. A few weeks ago I wrote about Generation Bruh, and how my white son’s response to reading about Emmett Til’s murder was disgusted outrage.  Importantly though, his outrage was laced with defensiveness.  As a white male reading about horrible violence committed by other white males, he felt attacked.  I was dismayed by his defensive response to Til’s murder, and yet it reveals the destructive and pervasive reality of defensiveness in our American momentIf a person lives in the majority, is served well by the status quo, and has experienced a merit-based fairness in the systems of society, it is very easy to feel defensive when confronted with evidence that suggests injustice abounds. This feeling of defensiveness is heightened when the reality sets in that the people who often benefit from this abuse of power look like you. 

Defensiveness and listening are mutually exclusive activities.

The jump from recognizing injustice to feeling blamed for injustice is a short one for many of us.  We live in a largely segregated (and gender coded) society, and such divisions have kept us not only from having authentic relationships with each other, but also from understanding different versions of ‘reality.’  I assume that my understanding of history is the THE way to understand history, and I have no need to hear about the experience of another (especially one who might discount my understanding).  Defensive responses stem from feeling attacked, and are clear indications that many of us have one-sided historical understandings.  When confronted with diverse realities, our own perception of America is disproved as perhaps incomplete, and it is easier to react defensively than face the injustices pointed out by others.

It is quite hard to be an informed person in the United States and not know that our history, systems, institutions and laws favor white, wealthy, increasingly urban, males.  The fact that defensiveness is a leading response to this reality is absurd to me, but it also makes sense.  The weight of historical and current injustice is SO overwhelming that many of us cannot bear it.  We resort to a defensive posture out of self-protection.  Something deep within us wants to cover our eyes and ears and cry, “It’s not my fault! It can’t be true! What do you want me to do about it?”

Whether we feel overwhelmed or personally attacked, defensiveness is a privileged response.  It ruins relationships, prevents honest reflection and hurts our chances to collaborate or improve.  Rather than listening to understand the perspective of another, we end communication, absolving us from reflection, abolishing our potential need to make amends, and delegitimizing the initial problem.  As long as I respond defensively—like a child yelling, “tattle tale!”—I do not have to engage in the revealed pain of another.  I do not have to confront the histories or inequities I have erased or ignore.

I want to posit that while defensiveness is a common approach, it is lazy, destructive, and selfish; we have to do better.  My teenager is learning to make sense of the world, and I hope defensiveness is only one step in a long journey toward an awakening into his place in the world.  If we hope to offer Generation Bruh help or wisdom, we must confront our own delusions, legacies and defensiveness.  Whose histories have we erased? When do we feel attacked or overwhelmed? Whose experiences do we diminish? How do we respond to the pain of others?