Listening to understand

16 April 2019

The Sunday discussion got Nathan Dunn thinking about how we listen

Chris Thorpe said something in Sunday’s discussion I’d been waiting two years for. Back at a discussion during NSDF ’17, someone made the scientifically accurate claim (although arguably misguidedly contextualised in her present argument) that male bodies are better suited to tasks of strength than female bodies. The auditorium, loudly, booed. To roughly paraphrase Chris’ remarks this Sunday, he said: if you are audibly making your disapproval of an opinion different to your own known, then you are part of the problem. In print I try to avoid the risk of sounding overly-certain of myself as once my words go to publication, I lose the luxury of revising my arguments or clarifying my points. However, I am comfortable in this instance to say I feel he is absolutely, unequivocally correct.

As I reflected upon in the first edition of Noises Off, NSDF is predominantly a middle-class affair, and if you disagree I’d love to hear from you. I don’t say this as an insult. In my opinion it’s observable with plentiful evidence supporting my claim. To be unapologetically suppositional for a moment, I believe this in the same way you believe in the damage of Brexit. You believe in that in the same way your peers believe in multi-culturalism as a positive sociological facet. You believe in that in the same way somebody else believes that their opportunities as a white person are being denied by the rise of BAME opportunities. Do you see?

Everyone has a reason for believing something. Whilst I don’t agree with the point the member of the audience was making, I certainly think they deserved to be listened to and although their subsequent interruptions were the obvious cause of the collapsing discourse, I think the vocalised response from the rest of the audience played a part in that. It was agitating and hostile, and I think it provoked them. Had they not been collectively shunned by most in the room simply for sharing an opinion, the following discussion might not have been as frustratingly fractured as it was. I believe that no one was deliberately behaving cynically in that room, but if you’d forgive my supposition once more, I think for a festival founded upon liberal values some should perhaps remind themselves of the definition of the word ‘liberal’.

To be clear – I am not deliberately purporting to be on the outside looking in here. There will be faults and flaws in this article that I will fail to recognise. But I do have a background that informs this opinion and I think allows me to see things others may not, particularly at a festival predominantly populated by the white, liberal middle-classes. For the sake of clarification: I’m liberal, voted Remain and although I have working-class routes, I am in the more fortunate end of that bracket. The environment I grew up in is best described as being incredibly mixed. I have a close friend who is technically homeless and also one who lives round the corner from Olympic gold-medallist Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill. Half of my friends voted Labour, the other Conservatives and UKIP. Half voted Remain, half Leave. Half into further education, half into apprenticeships and work from sixteen. This overlapping and conveniently even split of demographics enables me to see both sides of what is essentially the same coin. It’s why I grow increasingly frustrated when I see liberal-minded individuals behaving in a dismissive and arrogant fashion, because it’s totally counter-productive and actually works against their (or our) best interests.

Viewpoints like the one expressed on Sunday are obviously unfavourable here, and that suggests most wish no one would think like that. But did people honestly think that by tutting, moaning and rolling their eyes after that audience member courageously shared an unpopular opinion that this showy dismissal would make them change her mind? And if you did, is that not just an example of bully tactics and intimidating someone into silence or suppression due to your own need to virtue signal? 

I think it’s about time we stop telling ourselves we’re right all the time. We can believe we are right, but if we tell ourselves this it will leak into our own dialogues, and we’ll find ourselves in a situation ceaselessly revolving around us and our opponents telling each other how right we are – not listening to understand, but to reply. Listening is not synonymous with agreement, nor is it synonymous with platforming, so we’ve no need to be so fearful of potential association, regardless of how vitriolic we determine their comments to be. Let’s be more like Roy Alexander Weise, who despite being directly under fire reacted with tolerance and a desire to reach an understanding. Let’s be more understanding, and if we wholeheartedly believe we’re right and one of the good guys, hopefully more convincing too.


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Photo credit: Beatrice Debney