The Lost Art of Paying Attention

A month before the 2016 election, I wrote an essay called “My Political Disgust,” in which I criticized most politicians (Democrats and Republicans) as well as their spokespeople and the media.

One reader criticized the essay this way: “I did not read this article. The title already alerted me to how offensive it was.” She then went on to disapprove of what she had not read.

Another wrote: “I have not read the article. I suspect that it might be something to the effect that if we say one thing and do another thing, there’s an issue. For this reader, it seems, “suspecting” is an appropriate substitute for finding out what is actually said.

Both individuals ignored a fundamental requirement for sound thought and expression—paying careful attention to what we read and hear. I say fundamental because inattention breeds misunderstanding, which distorts the way we process information and thus makes it impossible to form sound conclusions. When that happens, whatever we say about issues is unhelpful and embarrassing.

Alas, paying attention is fast becoming a lost art for a number of reasons.

The most obvious reason is the global obsession with smart phones, electronic notebooks, and the various venues associated with them, notably Facebook. Walk down any street, enter any restaurant, store, airport, or other place where people gather and you will see few people look at one another more than essential transactions require. Most have their eyes fixed on their devices.

To be fair, some of their looking may constitute engaging ideas—for example, paying attention to something they are reading or to what is being said in a video. But even in those cases, they are often ignoring what the people around them are saying to them.

Another reason for the rise in inattention is the tendency for TV news and commentary to occur in smaller and smaller blocks and for commentators to interrupt one another more often. In this case, the fault lies with the media for adopting a format that prevents ideas from being developed and creates innumerable distractions for the viewer that undermine the habit of concentration.

To refresh my recollection of how the pace of discussion has diminished, I revisited several of William F. Buckley Jr’s exchanges with talk show guests in the 1960s. Buckley typically spoke for half a minute, and then his guest spoke for a similar time. In some cases, one would speak for a full minute or longer. There were occasional interruptions, but they were not rude. The longer time frame and relaxed pace gave audiences greater opportunity and motivation to grasp the arguments in their fullness.

A third reason for the rise of inattention is the change in attitude toward ourselves that Humanistic Psychology made popular in the 1960s and mass culture has reinforced ever since. Here is a brief sampling of those changes, together with a demonstration of their progressively negative impact on people’s attention:

Traditionally, self-mastery was a key goal in life and the way to reach it was through self-examination and constructive self-criticism. Today the key goal is self-esteem and the way to reach it is through self-acceptance and self-love.

With the new goal being self-esteem—that is, feeling unqualifiedly good about ourselves—characteristics that were formerly considered unworthy, and even harmful, were encouraged. They included self-congratulation, self-adulation, self-absorption, and self-indulgence.

These changes in attitude toward self encouraged new attitudes toward others. The basic thought sequence may be summed up as, “I am already wise and good and therefore don’t need to strive to be so. Furthermore, since I already know everything worth knowing, I don’t need to pay attention to what others say, and that includes my elders, my teachers, great thinkers of the past or my contemporaries.”

We hear a lot today about Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and its symptoms of poor concentration, hyperactivity, and impulsive behavior. The medical community tell us it is a real physical condition for which the treatment is one of a number of drugs, including Adderall, Dexedrine, Focaline, Methyline, and Ritalin. Big Pharma, the industry that produces these drugs, agrees with the diagnosis.

Without denying that this expert opinion might have some validity, I submit that a less costly and more effective treatment of inattention might be a return to the traditional view of self.

Copyright © Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved