The Campus Beat: Listen Through Others’ Ears

Nov. 4, 2010, 12:21 a.m.

The Campus Beat: Listen Through Others’ EarsIn the Rally to Restore Sanity last Saturday, Jon Stewart highlighted the desire shared by many for more civil and constructive governmental discourse. He broadcast his message widely, but proposed few methods to actually change the culture. My column is usually about music, but I think that if we consider identities and divisions in musical tastes, it can help us think about how to start to manage political divides when solving problems. In both music and politics, people could benefit from active attempts to listen and empathize outside their comfort zones.

Stanford gives us a solid introduction to the idea of a pluralistic, diverse, artistic community with events like FACES at orientation. We at least begin by acknowledging the excitement of having disparate music, like the contrast of Taiko to Calypso. But as we set up our schedules, it’s easy to get into a routine that doesn’t involve exposure to as much musical variety. With politics, we don’t begin with nearly as much diversity: I’ve heard several conservatives lament the heavy liberal leanings of most of the student population.

At the same time, when filling out forms before freshman year, we’re asked to rank our music preferences, because music is (for some reason) allowed to be a deal-breaker between roommates. They don’t ask about what kind of posters you might hang up or what clothes you wear. Music is the important aesthetic, apparently. We aren’t asked about politics, though, because that’s a diversity they have to try to encourage.

So why should we be wedded to our music tastes so strongly? How do they develop anyways? Middle and high school teach us that some types of music are “cool,” depending on which people you were friends with or which gender you are. Identities are formed around the bands we listen to. In college or later, your friends might introduce you to a new style, but there’s a reason our parents listen mostly to oldies. Politics we usually inherit from our families, though sometimes we explore on our own through academics, political student groups or internships, all of which help flesh out our ideas a bit more. But many people, in college and in life, take what they were given and don’t dig too deeply.

That’s because it takes effort to seek out different music or perspectives. Sometimes you might bump into them accidentally, but then it’s up to you to actually listen. And I don’t mean that you should sit there politely and let the music play or the person talk. Nor am I advocating for debate, full of point, counterpoint and conflict.

I’m talking about empathy. Take country music, for example. Dozens of times I’ve heard people say, “I like most types of music…but not country. I HATE country.” The genre is popular enough to have its own TV channel, so clearly it’s not bad music. The people who complain about it just as often listen to other types of pop or rock of the same performance quality. I think the difference is cultural. People don’t always understand music from lifestyles they don’t connect with. Some love screamo and hate jazz. Others can’t stand hard-core rap but cry at operas. When it’s not your community, you don’t like it.

Politics are similar—there’s a lack of empathy on all sides. People have different opinions, often for mostly cultural reasons. Take the usual example of guns: the culture of recreational hunting and personal self-defense in rural areas doesn’t mesh with an urban lifestyle that includes gangs instead of game. Unless people think through the other side’s perspective, we get conflict instead of understanding or reasonable compromise.

This isn’t a new idea. We’ve all heard the aphorism about walking around in another person’s shoes. But how often do we actually do that? It’s all too easy to live in your group of like-minded friends, read your partisan news sources and listen to the music you like.

What I suggest, then, as a means of practicing what Jon Stewart and his crowd were asking for, is to use music as a way to better understand and cooperate with others. Pick a genre you never listen to and give it a chance for an hour or two. Don’t be embarrassed either—if you fall in love with musicals, for example, go ahead and crank it up, singing along. And if you’re already a music explorer with eclectic taste because you enjoy the aesthetic variety, listen for the culture and politics associated with the art. Otherwise, we creatures of habit will remain in our ways, only occasionally bumping into new sounds or thoughts.

Sane and/or fearful comments or songs can be directed to Lucas at [email protected]

Login or create an account