A few weeks ago I colored my hair red. I had always loved my mother’s and my sister’s red hair and my other sister’s ashy blonde. As the mousy-haired one in the family I have long had blonde highlights—long enough that most people think that’s my natural color.
Red, I knew, would be a departure, a nod to the distaff side. Or perhaps I was channeling Christina Hendricks’ Joan from “Mad Men” (never mind that I am older, shorter, and less buxom.)
Apart from the few gushers (and thank you for that), reaction has been, well, polite. The most oft-repeated comment is “It doesn’t matter what I think. What’s important is whether or not you like it.”
Sure, to fret about my hair color is a vain concern. But think about that as a hook, so to speak, and a metaphor for this: ignoring the opinions of others in favor of preferencing one’s own can actually be corrosive to the spirit of community.
I’m not speaking against diversity or championing conformity—not at all. But listening to and providing accommodation to the reasoned thoughts of others is critical to maintaining and fostering a community and a culture of learning.
These days, as a nation, we don’t seem all that into fostering a community and a culture of learning. We are too used to being a culture of consuming, as Black Friday and Cyber Monday attest.
We have also become used to being a culture of ignorance.
Tom Nichols, writing in The Death of Expertise, says “Never had so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything.”
Seasonally appropriate at this time of year, George Friedrich Handel, writing in his epic “Messiah,” quotes the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned every one to his own way.”
In other words, we have made a sport and a pastime of enthroning our own random opinions and discarding the views—often more knowledgeable views—of others.
Which is how we come to believe that historically reputable news outlets are purveyors of “fake news.” And also how, in the buffet du jour of news outlets, we can easily find ones to reinforce rather than challenge our pre-existing-condition world views. (You don’t like the chicken tenders option? The next pan on the steam table is meatloaf with gravy. Keep shopping till you find what you like.)
We have turned, every one of us, to his own way, baby. And it’s not helping matters.
When our commander in chief tweets about creating a Worldwide Network “to show the World the way we really are, GREAT!” we really need to do some collective soul-searching and listening.
Because for people of faith and for ethicists, secular or religious, the concept of “GREAT” is at odds with the imperative to do good. The promulgation of lies and the embrace of nationalism is at odds with truthfulness and the reality of globalism.
It is old school to say this, but I am not ashamed to: we have an obligation to listen to our betters—even if we then go on to question them. Because first and foremost, we have an obligation to deeply listen to one another.
We don’t live in a self-determining vacuum. We don’t inhabit a space in which whatever we choose to do is de facto the best choice just because we ourselves chose to do it. Believe it or not, our self-interested choices are not always—and maybe not even very often—the best choice for the communities in which we are involved nor even the integrity of our own selves.
And my hair? Well, as metaphors go, let’s just say that it was something of a red herring.