Listening is a public duty

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Take any business course, and one of the first things you will learn is that you should listen to those you communicate or have a relationship with, especially if these are your customers.

Without listening to them, how would you know what they want? Why is this simple lesson lost on politicians?

Perhaps those who are used to being heard, who mention a problem and it’s fixed right away, or whose frustration is attended to immediately have no reason to complain. But then there are those, babies and employees, who seem to be ignored unless they scream. Babies don’t scream for no reason at all, we agree, just as employees don’t strike when they are happy at their jobs.

Businesses spend millions to find out if their customers are “satisfied” or if their employees are “fulfilled” at their jobs, because it matters. When the responses are negative, millions more are spent to change the business environment or model, improve product quality, or ensure safe work conditions. So, why is it so difficult for us to comprehend the screams of the Owls (Occupy Wall Street)?

I was asked if I like them. Democrats like them the way Republicans like the Tea Party. And I like neither party. Is “liking” the same as “agree with” or “sympathize”? What is there to like about them, after all? They are disorganized, disheveled, sometimes unemployed, and without agenda. Does Warren Buffet, in his latest tax reform proposal, like the Owls? He hasn’t been as vocal when the Tea Party started demonstrating two years ago, but now responds regularly to tax inequality with his own ideas.

What I like about them is that they keep on demonstrating, with or without agenda, like the baby that cries without being able to express pain, thirst, or hunger, like Councilman Tim Leigh who keeps on screaming about this or that. (Full disclosure: I have known him for years, and played golf twice with him even though I prefer to play alone.) The latest is his suggestion to pay council-members handsome salaries. Do I like him like a baby or like the Owls?

What I appreciate about the Tea Party, the Owls, and Councilman Leigh alike is that they scream so as to wake us up from our comfortable slumber. They are a little off, but their effort to bring attention to issues is worthy of the noise they make. They express, in their respective ways, a deep frustration not only because this or that is unfair, but also because no one is listening to them, especially in Washington, D.C.

Government agencies are tone deaf, while politicians prefer to hear only themselves. Sometimes, as Steve Jobs proved, you listen to yourself first and then get customer feedback. It’s a stretch to compare Leigh to Jobs, but he can be compared to his fellow real-estate mavens, like the Jenkins, who paid for a salaried strong mayor. Maybe he can enlist their support; maybe they will listen to him.

If the logic that brought Steve Bach to be mayor holds, then the same kinds of arguments ought to be considered in the case of the nine council-members. You get what you pay for, businesspeople and customers agree: if you pay nothing, you get nothing. If you pay well, you deserve to have expectations. Even though this argument, actually a cliché, is easily debunked, the citizens of this city bought it, and happily pay the businessman-mayor $96,000 annually. He must be worth it!

Following this recent change in the city charter, why not debate the merits of the Leigh proposal? Why simply dismiss him as a loud-mouth know-nothing? Is he annoying? Or is his proposal annoying? Unless you answer yes to both of these questions, then stop to think about the proposal rather than the person who makes it, as Aristotle taught us years ago. When you confuse the speaker for the speech, when you attack the speaker’s character rather than the strength or validity of the argument, you commit what is called an ad hominem (it’s a logical fallacy).

If local pundits are just having fun at Leigh’s expense, so be it. Anyone in public office deserves to be scrutinized and mocked, challenged and praised, being the custodian of public trust. But as we give him a hard time, as he seems to needlessly capture media headlines, it wouldn’t hurt us to listen as well, consider what he has to say. If only 10 percent of what he says resonates with us, it’s better than hearing absolutely nothing from other elected officials who prefer to conduct their business behind closed doors.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS who listens to his students when they complain about their assignments. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com Previous articles can be found at sassower.blogspot.com