I fear that we have lost the art of discussion, and most especially, that of rhetorical listening.
Oh we talk, and plenty. But most often I fear we as a culture are preaching to each other’s choir. Those who feel a certain way about political topics read certain magazines. Keep a certain realm of friends on social media. Tune into certain news outlets. While the rest, who feel oppositely, subscribe to different outlets.
And if things get heated, if we dare to cross our ideological lines, well, there’s that “unfollow” or “defriend” or mute button on our various devices. Or there’s leaping out of a moving vehicle as your father rolls through a stop sign in the neighborhood of your adolescence on the eve of Thanksgiving. There’s savagely attacking one another’s intelligence and basic humanity. There’s rioting. There’s police brutality.
There’s the parade on tv, with balloons and floats and shivering and hot chocolate. Or there are protesters bringing up the rear with the police firmly telling the news outlets not to cover this section of the parade route. Or there’s a die-in at a mall on the busiest shopping day of the year supplanted by non-stop commercials for Black Friday deals.
There is not, however, any rhetorical listening. Instead, you decide which views you are more comfortable seeking out and surround yourself with that noise and turn up your own volume if you encounter a competing channel.
Krista Ratcliffe, a scholar whose book Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness I’ve used for my project on silence as poetry, writes this of rhetorical listening: it is “a trope for interpretative invention and as a code of cross-cuItural conduct . . . [which] signifies a stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in relation to any person, text, or culture” (p. 1). In the book, to demonstrate what she means, she examines gender and race cultural logics to explore how we might invoke listening to create better cross-cultural relationships.
And I say this as someone who has not practiced rhetorical listening very well herself in the past. Just because someone speaks about a political or racial topic in a way that I find abhorrent, that does not make them less of a person. That does not mean I should attack them, verbally or otherwise, and call into question their very humanness. That does not mean that I should immediately adopt their view and dismiss my own, either. But rather, that I should attempt to listen. To hold the space of active silence. To turn it into art. To showcase respect. And then, when I have fully inhabited that stance of openness, to use and communicate what I have learned about my audience’s humanity to speak back in a way that does not denigrate their dignity and therefore allows that person to fully listen to me, rather than shut down and attack.
I know of many people on both sides of the political spectrum who think listening means trying to persuade the other of their inherent wrongness. Which implies an aura of inherent rightness around their head in a halo that causes the person they are trying to convince so stridently to stop listening. To resent. To defend. More noise.
I am worried this holiday season about what is happening in Ferguson and what it symbolizes for this country in its fraught and troubled race relations. But I am grateful for the discussions that are being started (and here are some tips for keeping things in the realm of open exchange) and it is my dearest wish that more of us in America would adopt this stance of openness across gender and racial identification lines to the other side. To rhetorically listen to one another–and to especially, if you are in a position of power, to extend your listening to those who have historically been silenced and otherwise violently oppressed– before it’s too late and more senseless acts of violence and indignity occur.