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Listening, conflict, and citizenship

September 8, 2011

Susan Bickford points to the importance of listening in democratic practice, an emphasis that brings Bernard Beckett’s Genesis to mind, even as it relates to my interest in the representation of violent conflict in literature for young adults in ‘democracies’.  

How is listening demonstrated in such literature? is a question I have wondered before… anyway, this is what Bickford writes:

“As Plato’s Republic begins, Polemarchus playfully threatens to use force if Socrates does not agree to return with him to the Piraeus. Socrates suggests an alternative: he might persuade Polemarchus to let him go.  ‘But could you persuade us,’ Polemarchus challenges, ‘if we refused to listen?’  And Glaucon responds firmly, ‘there’s no way’ (Republic 327c-328).  Here, in one of the earliest works of political theory, Plato has his characters recognize the centrality of listening.  Yet neither Plato, nor his successors give explicit theoretical attention to the role of listening, and to a large degree, this theoretical neglect of listening extends to contemporary democratic theorists’ emphasis on shared speech as a practice of citizenship.

Two questions come to mind here: why is listening absent in this way? And why should we care – that is, why is listening important?” (p1)

Bickford goes on to write: “What makes politics possible in the face of such discord, what keeps us from being doomed to war, anarchy, or the relentless clash of unyielding wills? I contend that what makes politics possible, and what democratic politics requires, is a kind of listening attention to one another.  Political listening is not primarily a caring or amicable practice, and I emphasize this at the outset because ‘listening’ tends immediately to evoke ideas of empathy and compassion.  We cannot suppose that political actors are sympathetic toward one another in a conflictual context, yet it is precisely the presence of conflict and differences that makes communicative interaction necessary.  This communicative interaction – speaking and listening together – does not necessarily resolve or do away with the conflicts that arise from uncertainty, inequality, and identity.  Rather, it enables political actors to decide democratically how to act in the face of conflict, and to clarify the nature of the conflict at hand.  Deciding democratically means deciding, under conditions in which all voices are heard, what course of action makes sense.” (p2)

Bickford insists on clarifying her vision of listening: “Let me stress also that my goal in this project is to analyze listening as a distinctive activity and not as a metaphor for a variety of related activities – reading, writing, or interpretation.  I focus my attention on actual communicative interaction between political actors, not on the interpretation of texts or on a general ‘openness to being.'” (pp2-3) “What I want to stress here is that both speaking and listening are central activities of citizenship.  Focusing on listening does not require denigrating or diminishing the role of speech, for politics is about the dynamic between the two.” (p4)  “Communication is an effort that acknowledges a more-than-one, a separateness, a difference that may be the source of conflict, and at the same time foregrounds the possibility of bridging that gap by devising a means of relatedness.” (p5) “…This difficulty presents one of the central challenges of politics: addressing a conflict through political interaction demands that we resist the desire for complete control, but what is behind that desire (a particular commitment) is what prompts us to political interaction in the first place.” (p5)

Ref: Susan Bickford (1996) The Dissonance of Democracy; Listening, Conflict, and Citizenship.  Cornell University Press: Ithaca and London.  (any coloured emphases mine)


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