When Liberals Won’t Listen

By Tom Gilson Published on February 15, 2018

My Stream article on “Why Liberals Can’t Listen” provoked a flurry of knowing nudges and gleeful agreement among conservative commenters, both here and on Facebook. And why not? It feels pretty good when science validates what you’ve been sensing for a long time. It also helps to know there are objective reasons that help explain why it’s always seemed so hard to communicate across the left-right divide.

But feeling vindicated isn’t all it’s about. We know more than we did before about the difference between conservatives and liberals. Now we need to know the right thing to do with that new information. And as badly divided as our nation is, the right thing is not to take this as an opportunity to stomp on liberals.

My guess, though, is that a whole lot of liberals felt that was what we were doing. (Some of us were, actually.) There have been more than 2,400 Facebook interactions mentioning that article. A lot of that conversation had to be happening in liberal circles — and I can just imagine what they’ve been saying.

Reviewing the Facts

They can hardly contest the facts, which come out of scientific, empirical research conducted by the once-liberal New York University professor Jonathan Haidt.* To recap what I wrote previously:

Out of five major ethical categories needed for societies to hold together — Fairness, Care, Loyalty, Authority and Purity — liberals tend to pay attention to just two, Fairness and Care. Conservatives typically attend to all five. But that means that conservatives think in ethical terms that liberals don’t actually consider to be ethical.

And while conservatives tend to be able to understand liberals’ ethical reasoning, liberals can’t do the same in return. They can hear our words, but they can’t understand what we’re saying.

What Do We Do With That?

One reader tweeted in response “This explains much, but doesn’t leave (me for one) with much hope.” I sense the same thing from several commenters. It seems that no matter how hard we try to communicate, liberals won’t really hear us. That’s a big deal, considering the lock they have on the values-forming institutions of education, media, entertainment and the arts. What do we do with that?

We must keep on strengthening our marriages, families, churches, home schools, Christian schools and our own contribution to education and the arts.

I have several suggestions. They begin with strengthening the values-forming institutions we own: our marriages, families, churches, home schools, Christian schools and our own contribution to education and the arts. On its own, though, that won’t bridge the communication gap.

What Did Jesus Do?

We’re not left without guidance, though. Remember, people wouldn’t listen to Jesus. We can learn a lot from how He treated them.

He loved them. The rich young ruler wouldn’t pay attention to His wisdom, but Jesus “looking at him loved him,” it says in Mark 10:21. And nothing is more poignant than His lament for the city that wouldn’t listen (Matthew 22:37-39):

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

This wasn’t stomp-on-Jerusalem day for Jesus. In surprisingly motherly language, He cried for the city. He cared. We need to have that attitude, too, toward those who won’t listen.

This wasn’t stomp-on-Jerusalem day for Jesus.

He worked hard to persuade them. Jesus taught the people. He argued with them — and He did it very, very well. Besides working His miracles, which should have been persuasive enough by themselves, He had equipped Himself with knowledge and with skill. And He backed up His words with persuasive actions — not just His miracles, but His ever-present compassion.

We, too, need to be skillful persuaders, and we need to keep at it through both word and deed, no matter who responds or who doesn’t.

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He didn’t always succeed. For all His perfection, as God in the flesh, Jesus still failed to convince a lot of people. Everyone has a choice: They can listen to wisdom or they can reject it.

We need to be realistic in our expectations. If hope depends on persuading everyone, then we are indeed hopeless. But we aren’t.

He knew His hope didn’t depend on persuading everyone. Even while enduring the Cross, He did it “for the joy set before Him,” it says in Hebrews 12:2. The passage continues, “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” Our hope doesn’t depend on earthly success, but on the life of Christ in us, and the future He has planned for us.

In fact I really ought to own up that I only quoted part of that hopeless-sounding tweet earlier. That reader also emphasized that our true hope is “THE king” and His return.

I’d say he’s on the right track.

Five Answers, Plus One More

We must inspect our own eyes for beams lodged in them.

So I’m suggesing five ways to respond when liberals won’t listen. First we need to strengthen our own institutions. Then in our relationships with liberals, we need to exercise love, skillful persuasiveness and realistic expectations. Finally, we need to keep our hope focused where it rightly belongs.

Yet there’s one more thing I must add with extra emphasis. We must inspect our own eyes for beams that may be lodged in them. None of us is Jesus, after all. We could be guilty of the very fault we’re finding in others.

Do we listen? Do we try to understand? If we disagree, do we truly know what it is we’re disagreeing with? Do we jump to stereotyped conclusions about “what those liberals think,” or do we pay enough to the person we’re with to find out what he or she actually thinks?

Liberals won’t always listen. We still should. Whatever they may do, let’s do the right thing.


* Haidt used the word “liberals” in his research, so I’m using it in this article as I did in the previous one, even though normally I’d use “progressives.”


Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream and the author of A Christian Mind: Thoughts on Life and Truth In Jesus Christ. Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.

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