My view: Our best hope: a listening campaign

By David Sumner

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 19 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

Five years ago this month, we lost one of Utah's most important native sons. He wasn't an athlete, a businessman, or even a politician; he was a self-described "English teacher," but what an English teacher. I'm talking about Wayne Booth, who was raised in American Fork and became a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago. Professor Booth spent his life teaching, writing and talking about rhetoric: about how we humans can engage in genuine dialogue and negotiate differences. Booth wrote, rhetoric "is our primary resource for avoiding violence and building community." And as we approach contentious mid-term elections, we need to recall, and commit to, his ideas.

Booth hailed from American Fork, served a Mormon mission in Pennsylvania — becoming lifelong friends with mission-companion Marion "Duff" Hanks — graduated from BYU, and then went off to the University of Chicago. He wrote 20 books, scores of articles, delivered hundreds of lectures, and touched thousands of students. In the late '90s, I met Booth when he visited the University of Oregon.

Within my discipline, Booth was a superstar. In 1961, he published "The Rhetoric of Fiction," turning literary studies on its ear and laying the groundwork for much of the scholarship of the next 50 years. But despite his superstar status, what I admired most about Booth was his willingness — eagerness — to really engage with students. During his visit, he spent hours in deep conversation with us in seminar rooms and over meals, never treating us as the neophytes we were. Rather, he genuinely listened, made sure he understood, and then responded intelligently and compassionately.

This was not just a deep reflection of who he was personally, but it was also a demonstration of one of his most important intellectual concepts, a concept we need more than ever. Booth wrote about and practiced "listening rhetoric." Throughout his work, he argues that our best hope for gaining deeper understanding and insight about each other and the world is to listen so carefully and openly that we can grasp and restate another's beliefs in a way that he or she will accept as fair and accurate. It is only then, he argues, that we may respond with our own reasons.

If we were to practice "listening rhetoric" in Washington, in the capitol buildings, in our communities and families, we would live in a very different — a much better — country. If Harry Reid and Orrin Hatch genuinely attempted to understand the other's arguments rather than just seeking an opening for attack, they might not agree in the end, but they would increase understanding and get more of the people's work done.

Booth was not a naive optimist. He was a keen critic. He had strong views and clear reasons. But when he spoke with another, he did so to learn rather than to win. He willingly changed his mind if your reasons were more compelling.

Five years after his death, his ideas still inspire me. And it is difficult to think about his deep compassion for the people behind arguments without thinking about the hours he spent at a church in American Fork being taught to love his neighbor. Upon his death, he was both eulogized in the New York Times and given a standing-room-only funeral in American Fork. The boy can leave Utah for the University of Chicago, but even after spending a life as a distinguished professor, it's hard to take the American Fork childhood out of the man.

I am disheartened by the current contentious rhetoric of campaigns as folks attack people's characters rather than their reasons, arguing from the gut instead of the head. This election season, we should step back and honor one of Utah's best by listening carefully to those with whom we disagree.

David Sumner, a fifth generation Utahn, currently teaches English at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon.

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