Failure to Listen

Sep 30, 2018 | Civics and Community

It has been a deeply disturbing week witnessing Dr. Christine Blasey Ford give voice courageously to her sexual assault. We have observed listening at its most wrenchingly empathetic. And we have observed its utter absence. Listening is an act of love, says StoryCorps founder David Isay. Its opposite, intentionally not listening, is an act of disrespect, of silencing, of rendering the other voiceless and worthless.

Yom Kippur, one of Judaism’s holiest days, was honored the week prior to Dr. Ford’s public testimony. It is characterized by the truly difficult work of repentance and atonement. The steps to repairing the harms we have done are arduous, as Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg illuminatingly explains in this Washington Post article and in this On the Media interview. Intrinsic to repentance is profound listening: Outwardly, to understand the impact on another of the harm we have caused and, inwardly, through a challenging examination of our flaws.

America loves a comeback story, which perhaps explains why we tolerate – are complicit in – mere lip service being paid to repentance. Lip service to the hard work of accountability might also help explain why we are quick to elide the necessity of listening – meaningfully listening – to someone speak their truth. Predetermination of opinion, behavior, and outcomes, as was evident from public statements by Senators during Kavanaugh’s nomination hearing, was an abrogation not only of their responsibility to listen, but avoidance of a moral imperative to truly hear Dr. Ford’s testimony. Viewed more broadly, it is an expression simultaneously of privilege and fragility. Much of our modern public sphere is tarnished by this absence of hard, uncomfortable, but ultimately human and fulfilling listening.

Traci Ruble, the founder of Sidewalk Talk, describes listening as an act of surrender. Surrender in that context suggests an openness to vulnerability and something of Martin Buber’s I-Thou philosophy. During last week’s events, there was little evidence of yielding to listening from those who should. There is a pressing need for us to listen to each other. Moreover, there is an urgent need for men to listen to women, for white people to listen to other races and ethnicities, for majorities to listen to minorities, and the oppressors to listen to the oppressed.

On a personal note, for the moment, I am struggling with listening. I am angry and pessimistic. But there are ways to be better humans. There are ways to be better conversationalists, better listeners. Whether in civic or social, personal or public, classroom or corporate spaces, there are entities and resources that can help, including the following:

National Week of Conversation

Essential Partners

Listen First Project


SideWalk Talk

More In Common podcast


Taboo Talk

Beyond Introductions podcast

Civic Spirit

Make a Sound Now

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