The Daily Tar Heel
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The Daily Tar Heel

Last week, while we were sitting outside The Daily Grind, my friend Alex said something intelligent (as he does frequently).

It was late morning, and Gary Birdsong had finished eating his sandwich on the wall outside Lenoir, had set up his folding chair in the Pit and was commencing the day’s marathon sermon. A couple of students were already watching, grinning with predatory anticipation.

“I’m not necessarily talking about Gary,” Alex said to me, “but do you think anyone from our generation would just sit and sincerely listen to someone who came out and preached like that? About anything?”

I thought about it and told him I didn’t think so. He said he didn’t either.

A pair of men walked past Gary and stopped to point and guffaw.

This is not a column defending the Pit Preacher and his thoughts on how things should be, because I’m rather partial to alcohol and feminism.

But I’m troubled by the glee with which my peers (myself included) descend upon him and his ilk.

By his ilk, I mean those who sincerely, verbally share what they believe. We live in a print culture (which, don’t misunderstand me, is wonderful), so itinerant preacher-types and the oral dissemination of ideas have been on their way out since Gutenberg built the printing press.

Once written thoughts became widely distributed, people became much less likely to sit, listen and submit themselves to someone else’s thoughts. And now that the Internet has happened, it’s easier than ever before for one to fancy that one has nothing further to learn.

A university environment encourages us to interrogate everything around us. And I want to be clear — that is so important.

But the cost of being a perpetual critic is that the act of simply listening to someone is cast as passivity. Colloquially: we’re “turning our brains off.”

But that’s not true.

When we listen, we’re turning another part of our brains on, the parts that can empathize and be influenced and think about an existence besides our own.

There’s a difference between preaching and professing.

We who performatively comment and share and build Tumblrs are professors.

People like Gary Birdsong, who just stand up and yell something because they have to and because they believe it, are preachers.

We professors have an arsenal for dealing with preachers, irony and sarcasm (not the same thing) being some of the most useful tools.

We’re allergic to sincerity. If we sit and listen to someone, he or she might change our minds about something — and allowing Someone Else to change our minds would betray the fact that we didn’t emerge omniscient from the womb.

As a college student with Internet access, I’m fully aware that sitting and listening without smirking or tweeting is a challenge.

But I think it’s a challenge worth our time.

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