Listening, Conflict and Citizenship

In Strong Democracy (1984), Benjamin Barber argues that liberals have reduced “talk to speech” which has “unfortunately inspired political institutions that foster the articulation of interests but that slight the difficult art of listening” (p. 174). He thinks that our representative form of politics enhances the “speaking function … while the listening function is diminished” (ibid.). Barber further contends that the Anglo-American adversary system penalizes listening. In contrast, participatory processes of self-legislation nourish mutualistic listening. Listeners do not scrutinize the opponent’s position to crush their opponents.

Rather, they “find that an emphasis on speech enhances natural inequalities in individual’s abilities to speak with clarity, eloquence, logic and rhetoric. Listening is a mutualistic at that by its very practice enhanced equality. The empathetic listener becomes more like his interlocutor as the two bridge the differences between them by conversation and mutual understanding. Indeed, one measure of healthy political talk is the amount of silence it permits and encourages, for silence is the precious medium in which reflection is nurtured and empathy can grow” (p. 175).

Susan Bickford (The Dissonance of Democracy: listening, conflict, and citizenship (1996) argues that listening takes its importance from the endemic presence of difference and conflict in our late twentieth century world (and intensified in the twenty-first). For Bickford, the very possibility of politics hinges on “communicative engagement that takes conflict and differences seriously and yet allows for joint action” (p. 2). She maintains that: “the capacity for paying attention that is central to deliberation has a special characteristic in political deliberation; it includes paying attention to the perceptions of one’s fellow citizens” (p. 35). By paying attention in order to understand and judge others’ contributions, we clear the way for the reshaping of our own opinions and viewpoints. “This kind of listening,” Bickford says, “is central to collective figuring out, to the communicative exercise of practical reason” (p. 51).

But this collective figuring out occurs in a world wracked by cultural conflict and adversarialness (what Michael Karlberg (Beyond the Culture of Contest [2004] labels as a “culture of contest”). To whom does power pay attention, who and what gets heard? Bickford alerts us to the way in which “what tends to get heard in public settings is a way of speaking associated with those who control social, political, and economic institutions” (p. 97). Socio-linguists point to the way power (or its lack thereof) conditions voice quality, affective disposition and the framing of utterances. Feminist theorists have observed that less powerful women speak more hesitantly, and patriarchal power hears only deference or insecurity. The same can be said of other non-listened to groupings. They do not have the right look and the right speech.

Many minority-focused thinkers are suspicious of speaking of “universal citizen identities” (p. 103). They believe that talk of a citizen self ignores the particularities of people’s lives (colour, gender, ethnicity, class, religion, sexuality). In “Polity and group difference: a critique of the ideal of universal citizenship,” Iris Young argues that because the inequalities of economic life affect the status and treatment of groups (minorities are persistently excluded and unrecognized in public deliberations), communicative justice requires the “articulation of special rights that attend to group differences in order to undermine oppression and disadvantage” (p. 177).

For Young, a democratic public ought to provide “mechanisms for the effective representation of the distinct voices and perceptions of those of its constituent groups that are approved within it” (pp. 188-89). Young is looking for a way to force the powerful to listen to the marginalized. In Democracy and Difference (1993), Anne Phillips worries that Young’s proposal could shore up “communal boundaries and tensions, which could be as oppressive as any universal norm” (p. 96). Granting group rights is not the way to enhance “procedures for group-consultation” (p. 7). We must not just talk to ourselves and issue demands to others.

The American turn to “identity” or “group-based politics” signals the unwillingness of many groups to “function on a basis of common understanding with the majority” (C. Taylor, Philosophical Arguments [1995], p. 281). Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor thinks that a severe identity-based politics, which collapses the citizen self into a multiplicity of shifting selves, leads people to believe that they are “less and less capable of forming a common purpose and carrying it out” (p. 282). People feel less bound with each other’s fate. Asserting that a particular ethnic or religious matters (as they do) easily excludes working toward a society where all lives matter.

And the more fragmented a democratic electorate is, Taylor contends, “the more will their energies be transferred to the promotion of partial groupings, and the less possible it will be to mobilize majorities around commonly understood programs. A sense grows that the electorate as a whole is defenceless against the leviathan state; a well-organized and integrated partial grouping may indeed be able to make a dent; but the idea that a majority of the people might frame and carry through a common project comes to seem utopian and naïve” (pp. 282-3). (Here, we set aside the heated debate regarding the idea of making sacrifices for strangers as possible only within the boundaries of the nation-state [J. Ingram, Radical Cosmopolitics: the ethics and politics of democratic universalism, 2013], pp. 45-60)

The world of partial groupings and identity politics thrives on assertive speech and denigrates listening. The less bound we are to our follow and sister citizens, the more the need for attending-to and being attended-to disappears. Ensuring that political fragmentation does not slide into atomization and defeatism places listening in the centre of a civil societarian agenda. Taylor maintains that the conditions for genuine democratic decision-making must include:

1/ People’s understanding that they “belong to a community that shares some common purposes and recognizes its members as sharing these purposes;

2/ That the various groups, types, and classes of citizens have been given a genuine hearing and were able to have an impact on the debate;

3/ That the decision emerging from this is really the majority preference” (p. f276).

For her part, Bickford counsels us to create a non-fragmented public self from out of our multiple loyalties. We must be prepared to be courageous enough to “be open to the possibilities of contradiction and conflict within oneself, to hear different voices and see from different vantage points, bit to move beyond those shared vantage points to a unique view” (p. 123). People who are not listened-to do not “get to participate equally in public argument about those real material needs and obstacles” (ibid.).

Let me conclude these brief observations on listening by suggesting some “pedagogical challenges” emerging from an analysis of listening.

1/ We learn to listen; we cannot assume that the listening capacity of the citizenry is developed or even developing. Our western scientific knowledge-culture and popular mass media cultures are not particularly hospitable to attending-to and heeding the vulnerable other. The erosion of solidarity in the lifeworld weakens the subject’s ability and willingness to communicate.

2/ With others, critical adult educators can foster communicative infrastructures within existing institutions, associations and public spheres. This means that the “rules of discourse” must be followed: no one may be excluded; anything may be said, questioned, or challenged; and no force may be used (S. Chambers, Reasonable Democracy: Jurgen Habermas and the politics of discourse [1996], p. 177). Resourceful and respectful communication not only pursues the “best argument;” it also produces human solidarity.

3/ Committed to a pedagogics of civil society, activists can create innovative learning forms where adults can practice what A. Gutman and D. Thompson (“Moral conflict and political consensus” [1990] call a “distinctly democratic kind of character—the character of individuals who are morally committed, self-reflective in their commitments, discerning of the difference between respectable and merely tolerable differences of opinion, and open to the possibility of changing our minds” (p. 100).

Listening cannot be taken for granted in our present feverish historical moment of antagonist divisions of many sorts. It must be cultivate actively by persons and collectives if we are going to hold civil society together with minimal, but crucial, solidarity and commitment to the commonweal.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.