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Listening with our Hearts

One of my favourite philosophers, Anthony De Mello, said that people are not so much afraid of embracing new beliefs as they are of letting go of old beliefs. That is, it is their reluctance to let go of an old belief that prevents them from embracing a new belief. The new belief or idea may be better than the old one, but it is human nature to want to hold on to a familiar belief or idea – even when there is growing evidence that it is wrong. Interestingly, De Mello is man who faced opposition from within the church because his beliefs went very much against the grain: he was considered a heretic and a threat to many in the church. Nonetheless, he was very popular with broader audiences.

Consider some beliefs which have been stubbornly clung to through history. At one time people refused to believe that the earth revolved around the sun. It was far more comforting to believe that we, here on earth, were the centre. At one time a woman could be accused of being a witch, condemned and burned at the stake as evil. Not so long ago a person who was gay was considered mentally ill and/or criminal. For each of these beliefs there were those who disagreed with the popular dominant belief but either chose to remain silent or were silenced if they expressed their views.

We can laugh at these examples today, but they illustrate people’s reluctance to let go of old familiar beliefs. For each of these examples the logic used to justify not letting go of the current belief in favour of the new belief was “That’s the way it’s always been”, or “Well, the majority believe it’s true so it must be true.” To the rational mind, such reasoning is unreasonable. But to the people holding those beliefs, it seemed perfectly natural, at least at the conscious level. I suspect that often beneath the conscious level there were doubts. That’s why people holding such beliefs would get angry when someone else disagreed with them. If they truly believed what they claimed they believed, they would not be disturbed or feel threatened simply because someone disagreed with them. At the very least they should have been happy to listen to their opponents’ ideas without ridiculing them.

Here is another familiar example. A couple hundred years ago, Europeans arrived and claimed to take this land for themselves. The basis of the claim was terra nullius – ‘land belonging to no one’- a legal doctrine in (European) international law. As such, it amounted to little more than “It’s the right thing because we say so.” Quite ridiculous logic, as the High Court found in 1992. Most people today know that is ridiculous. Do people still use the logic of “It’s true because I say so” today? I believe so, and I will come back to this shortly.

Consider another example, a favourite of mine. In the 1800s, Dr Semmelweis suggested to doctors that by washing their hands they could reduce risks to mothers giving birth. He was criticised and ridiculed for his beliefs. Many mothers’ lives were saved because Semmelweis dared to suggest a new practice that made him unpopular. But many mothers lost their lives after giving birth because their doctors refused to let go of their old familiar and cherished belief that they did not need to wash their hands. Refusing to let go of old beliefs, therefore, potentially can be lethal.

I suggested earlier that the logic of “It’s true because I say so” is still used today. I see it used among people discussing Aboriginal issues. People make a claim and offer very little evidence to substantiate their claim other than “Because I say so.” Sometimes it is Aboriginal people refusing to listen to the ideas of other Aboriginal people. Are they any better than the invaders who decided that what they did was right simply because they felt it was right?

I think back to Semmelweis at how sad and tragic it was that his peers derided him because they did not want their existing beliefs challenged. Semmelweis’s beliefs were based on sound observation and his desire to help patients. What were the motives of his peers? Why would they not at least give his ideas a go? His peers thought he was losing his mind (I know how he must have felt from receiving such criticisms). In his ‘honour’ the term ‘Semmelweis effect’ is used for the reflex-like tendency to reject new ideas because they contradict established beliefs.

It has been interesting, though hardly surprising, to see some Aboriginal people (whom the media call leaders but they don’t call themselves leaders) cop much criticism simply because they dared to suggest a new idea that ran counter to the established view which is held by the majority. I pity and admire an Aboriginal person entering politics. To get things done will mean making unpopular decisions; it will mean challenging the cherished beliefs of many.

There are many examples in Aboriginal affairs where new ideas are offered that would challenge the current dominant beliefs. As but one example, consider the popular belief that a necessary prerequisite for addressing the problems facing Aboriginal people today is to get enough non-Aboriginal people to acknowledge the crimes committed by non-Aboriginal people against Aboriginal people at and since the time of the invasion.

Those holding this belief (the need for non-Aboriginal people to acknowledge the past) do so despite the overwhelming evidence that many Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people are reconciled. The only evidence to support their claims is “Because I say so.” The tragedy is that embracing this belief diverts energy from where it could be used to make a real difference.

Einstein said “The ears won’t hear what the heart can’t accept.” Let’s begin to think and listen more with our hearts. If we do so, we might be able to address the problems facing Aboriginal people today which have proven difficult to deal with in the past. Let’s consider points of view that are different to our own. Let’s not be so quick to dismiss alternate points of view simply because they disagree with our cherished beliefs. We don’t have to agree with alternate points of view, but we shouldn’t feel threatened by them either.

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