Monday, November 26, 2012

Nobody is entitled to your listening

Last month I had a friend look me dead in the face while talking about some pretty triggering shit, thank me, and then say "You know Wendy, you're the person who taught me to listen." My eyeballs blurred salty with  surprising joy. This was one of the best compliments I've ever received. And it's taken me a month to dig out why.

I haven't always been as good a listener as I am today. I work at it and on it. Daily. For four years I've been trying to find/create kind, consent-respecting, and genuine ways to demonstrate my appreciation and excitement in discussion with others. I have tried countless practices and approaches. I am pretty constantly aware of and seeking to make the ways I interact with others better for me and better for them. I always want my communication styles to be more sustainable, alive, and respectful. 

For a long time I didn't know what to call this work. This work is not something that has a name or is given much air time in a culture that privileges extroversion and aggression in our interactions (thanks to capitalism & other broken hierarchies). Because I had no name for it I didn't know how valuable this work was. It's taken several friends calling it out to me in various ways for me to see that the way I listen and interact with others is incredibly valuable, highly energetic, and deeply aware.

"My voice matters." This has been a mantra for the last five years. And, yes, of course it fucking does, but my listening matters too. And what's more it matters in the same way. It matters because it is a part of who I am. It's also a force/tool with which I can have an impact (hopefully positive) on my culture and surroundings. Listening can be just as powerful a force as speaking and storytelling. I know this to be true because my experience in bearing witness to the struggles and trauma of others has taught me that in those instances listening is better than speaking. Always. To give up the space in your experience for the voice and speech of another person is mindbogglingly moving and important. Last weekend I was privileged to be part of an audience that was acknowledged for our role in "holding open the space for the truths of the performers."

In and out of the theater, when interacting with others how we choose to listen matters. This is extremely true in dating contexts. I can definitely say that I've decided to not to go on a second date with someone, not because of the way they talked but, because of the way the listened or didn't listen.

Listening is as powerful & valuable & often just as tiring as speech. 

I work in customer service. I recognize that part of my work there is to be ready to listen with customers. To be present with them and engage in their stories and words. For the most part I like this about my job. But, like many other folks in customer service, there are those moments when a customer talks to you in a way or with words that are unpleasant to you. Were you not working you would leave the space or confront this person's speech, but since you are at work, you do the listening. There are limits and boundaries to this of course, but enduring such assaults on my boundaries for listening is what I recognize as part and parcel of a customer service job. Listening is the primary job of a customer service professional. I am paid to listen to customers, which can be tiring. Sometimes when I get home I don't want to interact with anybody at all for a full hour. If someone talks to me on the bus ride home I ignore them and point to my huge "I'm-clearly-not-listening-to-you" headphones

Thing is, unless I am being paid for it, (&man are there limits and problematic capitalist hierarchies to that!) I've realized that nobody is entitled to my listening. It is a gift. A tool I have crafted and honed and nobody has a right to participate in my attention it unless I say so.

This is the reason I find sidewalk fundraising to be infuriating and in some ways harassment (also that they tell me I have a kind smile and say "hey gorgeous" to get me to talk to them).

I want to find better ways to protect my listening, because sometimes I am too tired to fight and too tired to  say fuck off and just want to get away.

In a lot of ways this plays out in street harassment folks (women in depressing majority) deal with on an infuriatingly regular basis. It's not just that catcalls or comments about our bodies are offensive, sexist, and objectifying in ways we don't consent to, it's also that whoever is making a catcall thinks that they are entitled to the listening/attention of whoever they are harassing. Forcing, shaming, or bullying someone into giving you their attention is just as harmful and violent a transgression as silencing their voice or censoring their words.

It's important to recognize that this is not just an adult problem. Kids, teens, and young adults are the victims of "you have to listen to me" bullying at the hands of peers and most often from adults. This helps normalize forced listening and fosters the notion that there are some people (those who have more power than us) we should always listen to (regardless of our ability/will).

Internet trolls make endless use of this learned "obligation" to interact/listen. It's the cornerstone of what makes their harassment so effective. It's why we hesitate to delete their comments and why they are proudest of their forced visibility. On some level trolls operate based on a value system where the attention & listening of others is a commodity to be stolen, bought with tactics & tricks and then gloated over like a pile of gold coins. It's a devastatingly effective hack of our learned social etiquette which tells us censorship is a sin far graver than harassment. Trolls love to tout censorship in defense their comments/actions which have already killed and possibility of consensual, collaborative interaction. I'd like to call bull shit on this. It relies on the fact that culturally we are willing to defend our voices but not our listening.

As primates, we humans are compelled to interact with one another, however, this common compulsion does not mean we are always consenting be interacted with or that we get to have/force an interaction whenever we want one. If this sounds familiar, that's because the same principle holds true about human sexuality. In recent years there's been delightfully radical strides in conversations about consent when it comes to sex. I believe that these conversations can and need to be mapped onto all forms of human interaction. Let's practice & model consensual principles in our social lives. Consent is bigger than just sex. It can and should live in all things we do together.

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