Saturday, February 03, 2018

Limits of Listening

A big chunk of the reading and thinking and writing that I'm doing at the moment is focused on working out how to expansively and radically think about listening as we work to understand the world and to build movements (including making movement media) to change it. The plan is to read things explicitly about listening (and various related topics), to read movement-ish things that I would be reading anyway but through a lens of listening, and to re-read a select few things that I've read in years past through that lens too.

I read a piece this week that drove home the idea that listening, however earnestly attempted and well intended, has limits -- not a new idea for me, but a powerful articulation of it. The piece is "It Takes an Ocean Not to Break" by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson in Cindy Milstein's collection Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief. I've hesitated to actually name the piece here, as it is so much more than the few narrow thoughts by a random white dude that I'm about to offer, but it seemed more disrespectful not to. It's a powerful, dense piece sharing deeply personal colonial trauma and resultant grief. I'm drawing out a single element, but as I said the whole is so much more, so please read it if you can.

Part of what that piece does is narrate the experience of the author, who is Indigenous, of going to a white woman therapist. The author gets enough from it to keep going back, but despite years of listening, the therapist never comes close to grasping the colonial realities she relates or their impacts on self, family, community.

Given my current focus on thinking about listening, this instance of a deep failure of listening caught my attention. As I read it, this absolute insufficiency in listening can be traced to two causes: One is because the therapist only has therapeutic (psy-based) discourses into which she can read the experiences of colonial trauma that she hears. Therapeutic discourse is simply inadequate to understand colonization. The other is white-settlerness. That is, our experiences of systemic harm and benefit shape our capacities to know the world. Committed, humble, listening while in genuine relation can bridge some of that, partly, sometimes, in some ways. But not always.

There will always be a gap.

There will always be moments, sometimes tiny and sometimes painfully deep and broad, where listening fails.

There will always be moments where those of us who experience benefit along some axis are generously gifted stories by those who experience harm, where we earnestly work to take them up, and where we fail to understand what is being said.

What are the implications of that?

Well, I'm not entirely sure.

I am certain that the lesson should not be, oh, well, don't bother trying then. It has more contradictions and limits than popular movement songs and slogans allow, perhaps, but I think we still need to cultivate solidarity whenever we can, and that requires a commitment to listening, even knowing it will sometimes fail.

So...what, then? I'm still thinking it through, but I think it has to do with how we listen.

We have to be aware that our listening inevitably has limits. We have to reject the approach to listening, to perceiving the world, to taking up the stories of other people, that expects that the resulting knowledge can be complete and that it will lead, in some sense, to mastery. That last word is important – it captures a whole complex history of how we are taught to know the world. It is the knowing of colonization, the knowing of capital, knowing that is oriented to control, domination, profit. Not that most of us occupy the violent cutting edge of that knowing most of the time, but it's still how we are taught: the world as knowable in a particular way, and therefore controllable, even if it's not us who knows and controls as individuals.

Instead, I think we need to listen in a way that acknowledges its limits, our limits. Listening done in this way has (I think) no choice but to stand back, allow autonomy, encourage co-creation. It is a listening that must be humble – what other choice is there, when you know you can be told directly and repeatedly, you can listen deeply and genuinely, and still (in a moment or over a whole vast field) be clueless?

It is a listening of the listener who knows that they might not know, so they have to ask.

It is, I think, a kind of listening that is a much better starting point for genuine solidarity.


Ruth Pickering said...

Much to think deeply about in this post, Scott ...... and then practice .... and be curious but not intrusive .... much to learn and explore. Thank you, Scott, for the reference and the post.

Scott Neigh said...

Thanks, Ruth!