Four years ago, in response to controversies at a number of colleges and universities including Yale and Evergreen College State College in Washington State as well as some of the rhetorical charges leveled at our own alma mater, our own Professor of Political Science Darel E. Paul penned s smart piece on the changing meaning of listening on campuses across the country (and perhaps even around the world).
“[P]rotestors and activists”, Paul writes, “claim to suffer physical trauma claim to suffer physical trauma” from the violence that they claim is “ubiquitous on campus”. Despite this claim, “Just 1% of campuses reported racially motivated hate crimes involving physical harm against persons or property—larceny, assault, burglary, robbery, etc. “
Still, those leveling the accusation request that
campus racial violence skeptics listen. Both at Yale and Evergreen, white male professors at the center of the campus storm were repeatedly told to listen and repeatedly accused of failing to listen. At Williams, all faculty have been encouraged to “be listeners. Talk less, listen more.” This is an exceedingly reasonable request.
Sounds a lot like how Professor Gerard responded to student protesters who disrupted a faculty meeting to discuss adopting the Chicago Principles. He read their letter aloud, so others might listen to their claims.
Unfortunately, as Professor Gerard experienced, “listening” does not begin the process of intellectual engagement, but, to some, ends it:
From listening to a great deal of anti-racist discourse, my strong sense is that listen means two rather different things. Its first meaning is eminently fair and consistent with the everyday meaning of the word: to listen means to hear my story. Minority students and faculty are keen for white students and faculty to listen as they describe their experiences. Experiences are not only external and material but also, and even more so, internal and mental, and thus involve both actions and emotional reactions. Both together make up the story being told. To listen also includes doing so attentively with neither defensiveness nor interruption. I submit that every person of goodwill should do as much.
Listen does not end there, however. A second meaning is attached to the first and follows in its wake. One heard this clearly on the Silliman College quad at Yale University in 2015. Students who were upset over Christakis’s defense of the position that students should police their own Halloween costume choices through “self-censure” and “social norming,” rather than submit to “bureaucratic and administrative” control asked for—and received—an apology for hurting their feelings and causing them pain. This was not enough. Students further demanded an admission from Christakis that both his wife’s original email and his own defense of that email were violent and racist. “Let us tell you if you’re being racist,” said one student. Another insisted, “Empathy is not necessary for you to understand that you’re wrong. Even if you don’t feel what I feel ever, even if nobody’s ever been racist to you―’cause they can’t be racist to you―that doesn’t mean that you can just act like you’re not being racist.” If Christakis had truly listened to those students at Yale, he would have accepted their definitions of racist and violent. He would have endorsed their interpretation of the world as socially normative. Because he refused to do so, one student concluded “all I see from you is arrogance and ego … You are not listening! You are disgusting! I don’t think you understand that.”
To these students, "listening to" meant "agreeing with".
We have a different understanding of the term.
And we agree that students, faculty, administrators, and even alumni should listen to those from different backgrounds, offering a different perspective, or holding views at odds with our own. We believe that listening should be the beginning of engagement. The first student speaks, the second student listens. The second offers his perspective, allowing the first to then add her rejoinder.
And so the dialogue begins, each listening to and learning from the other.
Or so it should. Alas, as Professor Paul reports, a different understanding of listening may be prevailing on college campuses today.
Please read his article. It is well worth your time.