I thought about that classic, memorable phrase from fifties sit-com television recently. It popped into my head in the middle of a report on the death of controversial and outspoken former Mayor of New York City, Ed Koch. In the retrospective on Koch’s political career and the review of some of his notable, acerbic, public comments, one of his infamous Koch-isms jumped out at me. The Mayor is reported to have often said to those opposed to one of his positions: “I can explain it to you, but I can’t comprehend it for you!”
While I’m not ready to endorse all of the colorful lines of the former mayor, who often yelled out his limousine window to New Yorkers on the street the question, “How am I doing?”’ he actually was quite close to saying something absolutely profound about interpersonal communication. He almost artfully articulated two essential and practical components of healthy interpersonal interaction. With what some may perceive as naïve impertinence, I herein dare to tweak or redact hizzonor, guided by a sincere respect for the recently-deceased elected official, but also by a desire to advance the dialogue.Yes, Mr. Mayor, it is indispensable for one to splain oneself. Desi and I would agree. And, you are also correct that, no matter how well-done the explanation, genuine and effective communication between persons doesn’t happen until or unless the other chooses to work hard to comprehend the message that is being sent. We should always ask those with whom we disagree “How am I doing?” on that. And (here I try to enhance the mayor’s line), healthy comprehension of another’s position must be done from the point of view of the message-sender. You are correct, Mr. Koch, that no one can comprehend for another. But genuine hearing of the message, especially on difficult subjects, only happens when both sides strive to comprehend, not only from their own point of view, but from the perspective of the other.
This is what I hear, these days, when folks refer to someone who may disagree with them as just not getting it. Perhaps that is what many moderns mean when they say, about a particular point of view, “I get that!” By the way; I am not focusing here on any one particular subject about which we might tend to disagree. Choose any of the many issues that increasingly have come to divide our world and have resulted in so much rancorous polarization in fields such as economics, politics, religion, child-rearing, the shape of the family, law-enforcement, fracking, climate-change or even the entertainment industry.Run a little experiment. Check it out for yourself. Are those with whom you are in disagreement capable of splainin’ themselves? On the other hand, are you competent to splain your own contrarian views? Do you seek first to understand, then to be understood? And, most importantly, are you willing to crawl into the perspective of the other and comprehend it from behind the eyes, from his or her point of view?
I often see this process unsuccessfully struggling to work itself out in the ceaseless ranting that now routinely passes for communication on Face Book and other ostensibly high-tech methods of personal or political advocacy. Sadly, there is precious little splainin’ by those who vociferously promote a cherished position and seek to convert others to their personal side. Because so much vitriolic advocacy these days appeals subtly to our fears, I suspect that many are unable to explain their positions because they have been swept along by an emotional torrent that allows for little introspection and rational analysis. What results is a kind of knee-jerk reaction which further eschews serious consideration and drives directly to ever-more-simplistic conclusions, where the issue easily gets personalized and a spokesperson for the opposite view is depicted as evil incarnate. Likewise, anyone else who disagrees is also demonized. Because it is so easy to hit the “Like” button or to share someone else’s language, swept away in our Irrational fears, we are often enticed simply to borrow someone else’s rhetoric or to be carried along by the emotional undercurrent of a frightening but persuasive presentation.In the end, like Lucy, I must take responsibility for splainin’ myself; and, with the Mayor, I must do the hard work of comprehending. But, also, in the audacity of this (humble-but-accurate) blog-writer, I must also take on the perspective of the other guy to the extent that, whether or not in the end, I agree, I get it. Sadly, too often I am afraid to risk examining my own hidden fears and unexamined motives for accepting or rejecting a particular position, I can neither splain my own stance well or get what the other person is advocating.
I’m trying hard to splain myself. Do you get it? How am I doing?