Reaves: On Listening

We should listen to people before discounting their experiences.

by Alex Reaves | 10/13/16 12:30am

Western society has always placed a premium on debate. From the early forums of Rome to the current political boxing ring, intellectual activity has been consistently built on discussion. Yet this blind worship of discourse has its drawbacks, notably when it comes to how easily it can silence minority voices. We as a society are so insistent on proving our own points that we unintentionally silence those who need to be heard the most.

I am not advocating the death of communication. We should be able and willing to convey ideas to each other, but we also need to make the time to simply listen to others and hear their views.

I am not arguing that you are not allowed to have a view on certain issues, but that you should form your view on these issues by stepping back and listening to others who have more authority on the topic first.

This proposition may seem frightening at first. For members of the socially dominant group who are used to always having their voices heard, it may appear as if I’m slighting your right to speak your mind. Unfortunately, sometimes your insights aren’t as valuable. When you speak on a topic that you are not deeply knowledgeable about, you, by virtue of your higher social status, risk silencing the thoughts of those who have had time to formulate in-depth opinions.

This is not a critique of your identity but of your lack of experience. For example, white people generally don’t have a frame of reference for racism because they have never experienced it themselves. Likewise, men have trouble with the concept of misogyny because we live in a male-dominated society in which they are the perpetrators and seldom the victims. The list goes on and on, and this concept can be applied to everything from transphobia to ableism.

The current narrative around racialized police brutality provides one especially appropriate example. I have personally experienced how white people take complete control of conversations on police brutality, speaking so passionately about a topic that does not affect them that they talk over others who are much more affected. Consequently, those who actually are affected feel too uncomfortable to share their experiences with conversation partners who have just dismissed their real experiences without taking the time to acknowledge them.

This brings me back to the notion of debate. Some may think that it is entirely appropriate to argue freely about topics such as racism, sexism or bigotry of any kind. However, for those who do not have the luxury of belonging to a group unaffected by such topics, it can feel like they are forced to qualify why they should be treated equally. No one should have to make eloquent arguments about why their trials deserve to be respected and acknowledged, yet that is often the implication underlying these discussions.

This goes beyond not hurting someone’s feelings. It goes to a much deeper, much more visceral problem with society. Imagine that, after experiencing some kind of abuse, you were told you just misinterpreted what happened. That somehow what you went through was questionable and therefore ripe for deliberation. Imagine that the person lecturing you is an outsider to your experience, completely unaware of how painful that ordeal was for you. I am guessing that you would, like anyone else, feel humiliated, belittled and utterly disrespected.

This is the sort of backlash that some from marginalized groups might feel when their various trials and tribulations are considered up for debate. I urge those who have dominant identities to simply listen to those who aren’t as fortunate. If it is an issue that has no bearing to your life and no implications for your humanity, then just stay quiet. You’re not obligated to adopt a viewpoint with which you don’t agree, but I hope you feel obligated to at least give it a chance. Human beings are diverse creatures, and as such we have diverse backgrounds. Instead of constantly trying to challenge someone else’s narrative with your own ideas, take the time to listen first.