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 Know—drawing 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.