On Forbearance and Listening

My wife once brought me up short, years ago, by suggesting that a man telling women to calm down when they wanted to express their pain about sexism perhaps wasn’t the optimal situation to encourage honest conversation. Other wise women have said the same thing to me: “John, it’s easy for you to say ‘calm down’ when you’re not the one who has been interrupted, silenced, or even kept out of the room altogether.”

Fair enough. If we are going to talk with each other about difficult matters, especially those involving injustice, oppression, and violence, not everyone is going to be able to keep his or her composure, and we all need to allow for that. Pent-up rage doesn’t usually get expressed in measured cadences.

I’d also say, however, that not everyone should have to keep his or her composure. It is good for us to see and hear, so we can begin to feel, rage…and frustration…and fear…and sadness.

These issues are not, after all, solely about the correctness of concepts, or the accuracy of analyses, or the plausibility of proposals. They are also about solidarity, connection, empathy. They are about “getting it” so we then can “get with it.”

That’s why, in other writings and speeches, I have advocated for women to tell their stories of gender discrimination so as to help the rest of us feel the way we need to feel, as well as think the way we ought to think. That’s the only way authentic gender equality will fully arrive.

And those stories won’t always be easy for people like me to hear, nor will they invariably have happy endings. But, as Aristotle told us, to be persuaded we need to be impressed by ethos (the character of the speaker) and pathos (the feelings the speaker arouses), and not just logos (the quality of the arguments).

I’ve done some listening and some advocating over the years—perhaps more than some of my readers would expect. My family took in poor young people on three separate occasions to live with us—for months—while their families were in turmoil. I was a teenager, and it was my bedroom that they were given. I didn’t like having to move rooms and bunk in with my little brother, but I was glad we could help. That was in the early 1970s.

I watched, aghast, the racist treatment of blacks and Mexicans in West Texas and remonstrated with my white bosses as far as I could (as a summer employee) in 1979.

I conversed with black people in my church, and interviewed some clients in my church’s emergency food bank, in the early 1980s in Chicago.

I listened to the pleas and arguments of lesbian feminists at the University of Chicago as early as 1983.

I studied the history of race relations and civil rights movements as a function of American and Canadian religious history between 1980 and 1985.

I participated in dialogues with native leaders, native women (many of whom feared some of those leaders), and others concerned about aboriginal self-government in the early 1990s as part of conferences on Canada’s national future. I taught native students at the University of Manitoba, taught native religion there, and engaged in dialogue with those students and my professorial colleagues in aboriginal studies throughout the 1990s.

I also became good friends with the head of women’s studies—an out lesbian, living with her lesbian partner, who studied lesbian domestic relations—in the later 1990s.

I heeded the testimony of nurses working at Vancouver’s safe injection site and became persuaded to advocate for InSite in the next decade…as well as meeting and talking with native leaders in Vancouver and elsewhere in that decade as well.

I have learned a lot by this listening, and I have a lot more to learn. “You’re not as feminist as you think you are,” my beloved sometimes reminds me, and I realize that I will never be as feminist as I would like to be because I will never live life as a woman.

Likewise, I’ll never understand what it’s like to live in North America as a person of colour, or as part of an LGBTQ+ minority. I hope I never know what it’s like to be chronically unemployed or poor. I certainly hope I’m never going to experience religious persecution, even as I’ve experienced little bits of religious discrimination along the way….

So if I’m going to learn what it truly is like to experience the world in these alternative modes, and if I’m going to benefit from the knowledge and wisdom available only in those modes, I’m going to have to listen…and go out of my way, and comfort zone, to listen…to those with experiences deeply different from mine.

I’ve written about this point at some length in academic epistemological terms in Need to Knowdrawing particularly on the work of Canadian feminist epistemologist Lorraine Code, among others. So I’m on the record in this respect.

But I wanted to register these convictions here, too, particularly in the light of my recent posts. Nothing I’ve written has been intended to silence, or even temper, the voices of my sisters and brothers of different sorts. Quite the contrary: I’ve wanted to advocate, helpfully or not, for ways in which those voices can be heard more and better.

I might be wrong in my suggestions, of course, but I thought it would be well to be clear about my intentions. And I hope those of you who do represent significantly alternative points of view will tell us your stories, your concerns, and your aspirations…however disquieting we may find them. I need to hear from you because I can’t know on my own what I can’t know on my own.

Thanks for listening. I’d like, again, to listen in return.

11 Responses to “On Forbearance and Listening”

  1. Paul

    Points well taken John, but in my experience, those who talk most about the need for tolerance are the least tolerant, those who talk about inclusion are the least inclusive, and those who talk the most about needing to hear the other are the ones least able to hear their own particular “others.” And no, I am not referring to you in this case.

  2. JDB

    Thank you so much for sharing this post, John! You make some excellent points and describe well the sort of mindset that I think will lead to the most effective sort of dialogue about all these issues. Specifically I like your/Aristotle’s points about the importance of taking into consideration character and feeling, as well as logic, in understanding one another’s arguments and I’m glad you gave voice to what we all know but often overlook – that we cannot understand what it is like to be what we are not. Thank you for reminding us of that most important and elusive part of dialogue: listening.

  3. DJ Brown

    Well said, John, thankyou. It is hard or maybe impossible to know entirely the personal history and/or level of education on a particular issue of anyone else, even those we think we know quite well. I guess we need to remember our own limitation in that regard whenever we listen to anyone on a painful subject – there are levels and filters for anything we hear that probably require a listener to err on the extremes of compassion and patience maybe choosing silence in response or even an invitation to “Tell me more about that” rather than offer our critique or corrective instruction unless asked for such advice. I dunno – too wimpy a position to take?

  4. Jim

    John, I was saddened by the final commentary on the blog “ It is time to have a debate and sort this out”. The final comments on August 06, 2015 from my perspective discouraged any further dialogue. I watched for a period of time to see if you would try and encourage more discourse….to no avail. If you are going to drive the bus you will need to be in the drivers seat. Unless, you shared the opinion of the writer in his last sentence and as such comfortable with the blog closing on such a note. As that was the impression I was left with to contemplate.

    • John

      I was discouraged too, Jim, regarding the way that exchange devolved. I did speak up, as you’ll note, to those I felt were going too far, but I don’t feel obliged to police any but the most egregious comments. (I’ve blocked a few people over the years who were repeat offenders.) Some people just disqualify themselves as they go on, and it’s not the style of this blog to pronounce upon them–again, unless I think I can engage them profitably. Otherwise, I let them steam on and readers can judge for themselves. My own attitude in that particular instance I think ought to have been clear enough without my insisting on the last word…upon which I rarely insist on the blog. Thanks for asking.

  5. Jim

    Hi John,

    Thanks for the clarification. I find that there is a real ego-centric expression of faith that needs to be understood. While at the same time so little emphasis on the comprehension and application of grace.

  6. J.B. Frank

    Dr. Stackhouse; In addition to your speaking to the importance of ethos, pathos, and logos, I wonder if we should also include telos? Does not the goal matter at some point? Would not the telos, in fact, help us frame the other three?

    • John

      Telos is crucial for the author, of course. What Aristotle, like other rhetoricians, is emphasizing are the three key aspects of speaking persuasively in terms of the audience. Thus telos guides the other three, as you suggest.

  7. Jim


    Thanks for sharing the blog post. An interesting read.

  8. Kevin K

    Ironic the number of paragraphs in a post about listening that begin with the word “I.” Good listening doesn’t start with “I.” Though, admittedly I don’t know how one might write an effective post about listening, as listening is something you do rather than something you talk about. A good goal though.


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