Listening As Resistance

Caught listening. Photo credit: ©Alexandra Thompson

Here are some things I know about listening: It is a choice. It’s a skill that requires practice. Most people believe they are better at it than they actually are. The act of listening involves more than hearing sounds; it requires thinking and feeling in order to be effective in communicating with others.

What I have learned about listening is that it is hard to contain our emotional reactivity if we don’t like the message we’re receiving. How well or how poorly we listen often reflects the value we place on the messenger in a given context. I can also listen as I read: listen to the characters and the author; allow their voices to reach me.

My Twitter and blogging handle is edifiedlistener. A name I thought up, claimed and that felt right. After 6 years at that digital address, in that digital identity, I still feel strongly about listening and am often edified by the act of careful, thoughtful listening with others. In the wake of more unsettling news from my home country, I find myself thinking about my listening choices and what really matters.

On most days I have the privilege of being able to hear and listen to a variety of people. I catch the headline news on Austrian national radio, I dip into my Twitter feed to hear from hundreds of people and organizations about happenings in the world, in homes, in schools, in mainstream media, and plenty of other places. This means I have to make choices. I have to decide to whom I will listen, which stories I will investigate further and reach conclusions about what meaning these hold for me and the people and issues I care about. This is post is about how I reach some of the choices I do and what that’s good for.

Online I belong to a few communities, many of which overlap and intersect. I keep up with other K-12 educators and Physical Education specialists. Higher Education professionals have welcomed me into their conversations on a variety of topics and I have learned from their diverse areas of expertise. Various entry points to Black Twitter have offered me sustenance on too many levels to count while more specific groups such as edtech bloggers of color or English teachers challenging the cannon with #DisruptTexts have afforded me opportunities to engage in areas of interest that are not in my designated academic wheelhouse. Finding people who know more about a given topic than I do is not hard. My buffet of options is nearly limitless.

The folks I seek out for their insights or leads offer more than their smarts, however. I listen to people who have skin in the game. If I’m wondering about education policy, then I’m going to listen to teachers who are tasked with implementing that policy. When the next political outrage floods my Twitter feed — then I’m going to turn my ear past mainstream media and listen up for what trusted voices on Black Twitter are saying. Why? Because I trust people who have been traditionally marginalized to have a perspective that does more than parrot what the holders of power are broadcasting. When corporate PR spreads their blanket assurances of wanting to serve customers best and needing to collect every imaginable data point in order to do that, then I listen to the capitalism and tech skeptics who can show me where the untruths are buried — whether in a company’s Terms of Service, in its abysmal record of hiring for diversity, or elsewhere.

As we watch democratic norms in the United States steadily being eroded by an openly corrupt and destructive federal administration, I’m listening acutely especially to women, (Sarah Kendzior, Hend Amry, Leah McElrath, and Tressie McMillan Cottom) who warned us before the election of 2016 and before the inauguration about what would follow. Their voices have been fierce, unwavering and well informed. But the listening they have received seems remarkably weak in relation to the consistent accuracy of their claims.

My capacity to listen widely, generously and attentively becomes my resistance.

I’m not gonna lie. I am definitely overwhelmed with the current political climate in the US and in Europe. Each further step to the right — that seeks to punish asylum seekers rather than assist them, that reinforces racist policies under the guise of promoting national security, that proclaim dramatic cuts to welfare, health insurance and public education to be inevitable and call for further privatization —each presents a new devastation in its own right. And as these devastations pile up, become normalized, and their arrivals accelerated, my own capacity to sit and listen, to stand and listen, to take the time to listen, will be at risk.

If I am edified through listening, I am also, more than ever, tested in both. To be uplifted, morally or spiritually; enlightened, informed: edified is my goal. To remain a careful, patient and critical listener is still my calling. My capacity to listen widely, generously and attentively becomes my resistance. In listening to learn I gather and process the information that allows me to contribute meaningfully to conversations. That means while I read the updates on awful immigration policy developments, I continue to read about how automating public services to the poor sets the scene for a widening surveillance state and why we need to show more concern and awareness than we currently are. As I parcel out my protest in tweets and retweets, I also dig into an academic text which explains in reasonable detail how liberal democracies can devolve into autocratic rule through legal means.

Listening as resistance also means that those communities to which I belong accept the fact that I will keep moving in several lanes at once; that I will not limit myself to one niche field of interest. My focus is trained on building political awareness more than social capital. Because if I’m honest, my life and that of my children depends on maintaining and bolstering an acute political awareness. If we want to live in a free society, I am learning that this requires fighting to defend those freedoms we easily take for granted. So I listen and learn, share and comment. And resist. I didn’t realize it but I am pursuing the doctorate of my life in listening. Join me.