NOW HEAR THIS: Listen First is coercive.
Some say “listen” when they actually mean “comply.”
Listen First Charlottesville has been promoted as an event for healing and reconciliation. Through conversations that “prioritize understanding the other,” the program’s founder and CEO Pearce Godwin wants to use Charlottesville as a model for communities across the nation to resolve challenges. His project will plant its flag in Charlottesville this weekend. Unfortunately, Pearce is yet another outsider following an all-too-familiar pattern of condescension and erasure: telling Charlottesville what it needs rather than following the lead of anti-racist organizers whom the city has repeatedly refused to listen to. Pearce’s refusal to acknowledge the root cause of our major trauma makes him (and his massive conglomerate of 60 partner organizations) ill-equipped to heal us. Worse, it appears that Pearce is a profiteer using our trauma to build his credentials and strengthen his “Listen First” brand. This is what happens when entrepreneurship meets a city looking for a facelift: #Charlottesville becomes ground zero for a start-up that specializes in easy “solutions.”
On August 12 2017, as many of us were reeling from shock or trying to figure out how to extricate ourselves safely from the site of the terror attack, Pearce was describing our losses as “casualties of incivility.” In his brief post that tragic day, Pearce never once mentioned the words “white supremacy,” “white nationalists,” or “Nazis” despite national news that 300 of them had marched through UVA the night before with blazing torches, attacking counter-protesters. Instead, he wrote “polarization” and “tribalization” were responsible for the murder and mayhem. He presented “rebuilding civil discourse” as more important than promoting civil rights or resisting white supremacy.
Listen First uses the unsteady foundation of false equivalence which says there are two legitimate sides to every story. Racists vs Anti-racists. Coke vs Pepsi. Republicans vs Democrats. People who cut their sandwiches into rectangles vs people who cut their sandwiches into triangles. Nazis vs Antifa. As if struggles for freedom are just a matter of preference or misunderstanding. This oversimplification conceals the fact that some ideas are toxic. Attempts to justify and establish a white ethnostate are toxic.
By putting false equivalency and civility over justice, Listen First Charlottesville has already proven that it is not what we need. On the surface, the event is alluring, attracting white moderates and liberals with the promise of an easy solution to a complex problem: just “listen first” and all will be well. But Charlottesville’s problems aren’t the result of faulty hearing; they are the result of white supremacy in overt and covert forms. Any “conversation” that aims to bring reconciliation to this community must begin with that basic truth and must prioritize action for actual change.
Here are a few other problems with Listen First Charlottesville:
1. It shields itself from criticism by positioning itself as neutral “listening” when it is not.
- The “civility” language of Listen First Charlottesville makes it nearly impossible to offer the legitimate and radical feedback necessary to expose its foundational problems.
- To critique this event is to risk being dismissed as intolerant.
- This is a strongarm power play disguised as openness; kinda like Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter or how Jeff Sessions looks like Granny Clampett. It looks harmless but it isn’t.
2. The lineup of leaders and moderators is troubling and includes:
- a klan whisperer who has built a robust personal brand reforming KKK-ers but has notably failed to fix Jason Kessler
- a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board who says Trump is “not to blame” for increasing racial strife in America
- a former probation officer who now markets GPS tracking ankle monitors
- passive faith leaders: a few known for telling people in Charlottesville to ignore the Klan, another who believes “This is not a race issue, it’s a human issue” and famously convinced a black youth not to protest in Ferguson
- national leaders from the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, and Tea parties
3. It is an aggressively naive solution to a complex problem that its organizers can’t identify, let alone resolve.
- Pushing the notion of “healing” as goal attainable through a series of talks distracts from the structural oppression established over four centuries.
- Using #Charlottesville as a model for nationwide reconciliation WITHOUT centering a critique of white supremacy and racism dooms this effort.
4. It fails to recognize that individual conversation does not correct systemic racism.
- “Listening” puts the focus on individuals, as if chatting with a racist will address the foundational, structural components of white supremacy.
- The neutral tone of “listening” overlooks white supremacist violence and CONTINUES TO LEAVE US VULNERABLE TO ANOTHER ATTACK.
Listen First fails to acknowledge that there can be no reconciliation without truth. And Charlottesville’s truth is rooted in white supremacy. This three-day event does nothing to address the entrenched structural elements of antiblack racism and white supremacy in our community. By valuing civility over justice, it chooses quiet conversation rather than seek real peace. Black liberation and dismantling White Supremacy are not topics suited for civil discussion.