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Many who've been reading my columns here for the last few months have heard me beleaguer continual dismay at what I see as the lost art of critical thinking. There can't be much denial of this lack if one simply uses the powers of observation. Have you peered at the world around you lately? The recent disaster on Wall Street, if you think about it, has been silently screaming at us for months. Yet, I've recently had a revelation, almost an epiphany, as to the possible root cause, or at least one of them, of this lost thinking treasure. In order to employ the art of critical thinking, one must have a stimulant of clarity about which to think, a stimulant of relevant information, if you will. Without that, the most you can do is react after the fact, seclude yourself in apathy, or blindly follow the herd. Or, a combination of the three.

Doing this column for Fabulously 40 has been good for me; moreover, it's been very educational. In order to contribute a relatively informed critique of ever-changing current events, I've had to become a political talk show junkie. I've pushed personal opinions and philosophies aside and watched overtly partisan channels to observe the 'big picture' of event coverage and campaign rhetoric. At the risk of blindness, I've poured over every major newspaper and underground publication on the 'net'. I've devoured the editorials and opinion columns of every well-known journalist and a few not so known. Partly because of the continual ratings war, the value of celebrity over that of relevance becomes apparent. Even the print media is a victim of 'he who talks loudest’ or who the best crafts sensationalism. On this course, I've discovered that what we as a society have truly lost is the 'art of listening'.

Assuming I’ve provided a significant and clear mental stimulant, think about it for a minute, then picture a popular cable news talk show; take your pick. Then, envision what I call the 'pundit panel'. The host may run a sound byte or clip of an earlier recorded event or campaign ad. The host then puts forth a question to the 'pundit panel', usually two or more 'analysts made up of politicians and journalists. The first speaker may get two sentences out of his mouth before being interrupted by the host. Then, before completing a thought which usually has nothing to do with the question, which is why they were interrupted by the host, that person is cut off and the next speaker gets his turn. They, in turn, now get interrupted by the host and the first speaker. Before one clear or cognitive thought is completed, three or four people are all talking at once. No one is listening to the host or each other. Each is, when not interrupting or speaking, planning how to rebut or get their statement finished before another interruption in the form of a commercial station break. I'm often reminded of a flock of sea gulls squawking and fighting for position as some unsuspecting tourist tosses a cold, soggy French fry! The few intelligent and/or polite guests usually don't get to say much.

Then, there's the morning 'panel' type talk shows geared to women. I truly hope men DON'T watch them or everything we've gained in shedding old stereotypes of babbling, air headed females is lost. This morning I had the very popular show, "The View" on and suddenly realized why I'd always shunned that show. I could never quite figure it out because I DO like the gals hosting it on an individual basis. Barbara Walters can never be accused of being less than a smart, competent woman. The show opens with a discussion of 'hot topics' or the occasional 'bitch' session usually led off by Whoopi, who's no dummy either. While it has the potential of being interesting, sadly, what begins as a discussion quickly dissolves into a cacophony of progressively louder, giggling, interrupting, chattering females making no sense at all. No one statement or thought is really discernible amidst the racket. So what's happened to listening when another is speaking? What's happened to RELEVANT and CONCISE response to a question rather than the beating around several bushes in an irrelevant forest? What happened to good manners, for Pete's sake!? These are supposed to be professionals on whom we can depend for information on which to form our decisions or even be entertained.

Another example: the 'one on one' interview. In this format, listening responsibility shifts to audience. I've made it a point to really listen to the answers given specific questions and discovered ALL politicians have mastered a new art I call avoidance. A completed sequence to a question that requires a simple yes or no response is rarely, if ever, achieved. Even when the interviewee is repeatedly admonished by the interviewer, "yes or no, do you support . . .?" Simple 'yes or no' replies have become extinct. Thereby, making close listening even more imperative! You can learn more in what is NOT said than the spew of irrelevant and craftily spun words. The real information is hiding there somewhere between the uttered sounds. Amazing! Oh, how I miss Tim Russert!

Sunday, in our local paper, there was an article on the op-ed page regarding the upcoming vice presidential debate on October 2nd. I confess I could find no places to fact check this, but it still serves as thought food and worth mentioning if only to conjure your awareness if you watch the debates. It seems representatives of the two political parties met to hammer out rules of protocol for the questioning in all of the upcoming debates. The Republicans demanded, and won, an agreement that in the interest of fairness, the questions presented to Biden and Palin would be limited to direct and elementary queries. Why? Because of Mrs. Palin's inexperience in national and international politics and the art of debate. No such limits were to be applied to McCain and Obama, however, even though Mr. McCain contends that Mr. Obama is even less experienced than Mrs. Palin. It will be very interesting to me to listen closely to the questions asked in this debate as that will be my source for fact check of the above article. Perhaps, I'll be listening closer to the questions than the avoidance sure to follow. Meanwhile wondering in the back of my mind why the parties get to set the rules of protocol for the questions asked them?  

The same scene and precedent presents itself everywhere. In restaurants and waiting rooms, people yell into cell phones as if they think they must yell to be heard with no thought of the disturbance caused other patrons. Or, ever find yourself left standing mid-word when speaking with someone whose infernal cell phone rings? Have you ever been at the theatre or a concert when all you can hear clearly is the life history of the deceased Aunt Mable of the woman seated behind you? Or the latest rap lyrics being told to the bagger by the teenage cashier as you patiently wait to ask about a price rung up in error? It seems everyone is always talking but nothing is being said. And no one is listening anyway. What's to critically think about? There is a severe lack of worthwhile, straight forward, and relevant stimulus. The world of communication has become a cacophonic chaos.

I recently read a profound thought somewhere and scribbled it down.  “Light travels faster than sound. Some people shine bright before they speak.”   Upon pondering that for awhile, I couldn't help but think and form a goal for myself, 'and, sometimes the sound then obscures the light. Speak with great care and mindfulness'.  

I suppose what I am trying to accomplish here is to provide a thoughtful stimulant that will encourage folks who watch the first upcoming presidential debate on Friday evening to employ a new ear and a watchful eye. Hopefully, then, the voters will have something worth critically thinking about. Unless they've given up on the art of thinking anyway, then things will continue as they are. Think about that for a moment!  

Susan Haley, Author


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