The challenge of listening

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Two women sitting at a table talking to each other
Photo by Christina Morillo

We need to, first, listen to one another

Several white Americans have asked me, is the civil unrest Americans still see across the country, against anti-black violence, police brutality, and demanding systemic change, a movement? Or is it a moment that is likely to die out in a couple of months?

I reply by saying it depends if you get involved, how you get involved, and if you can, you listen as an ally. For example, Portland’s Wall of Moms was initially thought to be responding to the George Floyd protests as allies. Their goal, however, was to get federal officers out of the city. Their chant said it all: “Feds stay clear, moms are here!” and “Feds go home!”

Now, these moms have been called out by black community leaders of Portland for assisting in diverting attention away from the Black Lives Matter Movement. The president of the Portland NAACP depicted their involvement and that of other white protesters as “a largely white spectacle.”

WOM is accused of excluding black moms, showing disregard for the safety of black protesters, and co-opting the Black Lives Matter Movement protest for their agenda, like an avarice WOM member filling out forms to become a 501c3 nonprofit. The viral images of “Naked Athena,” an unclothed white woman and performative activist, won accolades for flashing federal officers as a brave and bold ally of the cause, is another example of co-optation.

“Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part”

“There was a very deep feminine place in myself that felt provoked,” Naked Athena, who goes by the name Jen said on the podcast “Unrefined Sophisticates.” “I’m notoriously naked. I just have been that way for several years now, and there’s not anywhere that you can’t find me naked… I’m a sex worker, and my nakedness is political. It’s my expression.”

Two men having a conversation
Photo by Nappy.co

Both WOM and Naked Athena contested criticism saying they had good intentions. “I want us to remember why we’re here,” Lakayana Drury, executive director of Word is Bond, a Portland-based nonprofit told the Washington Post. “What’s happening downtown is not a Black issue.”

John Lewis’s posthumous essay “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation,” which he requested to be published on the occasion of his funeral, stated, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”

To improve our Democracy, we need to first listen to one another. Martin Luther King made that request decades ago. King’s 1967 speech “The Other America” at Stanford University said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” During the summer of 1967, 159 race riots erupted across the country. In the speech, King asked the followed: “What is it that America has failed to hear?”

The Wall of Moms and Naked Athena failed to hear what their local NAACP and Black Lives Matter movement requested of them as allies. However, with the cacophony of voices and continued violence in the streets of America, we all, in various ways, are missing the vital importance of listening. George Floyd’s death was an inflection point for many Americans, and many more people are now listening. Nevertheless, listening to one another across our differences and perceived well-intentions is difficult because it requires being non-defensive, hearing without judgment, taking notice and responsibility of one’s action, and acting toward the requested change.

In my opinion, there are five levels of listening. However, the one that would bring about the Beloved Community requires compassionate listening.

Ignored listening makes no effort to listen. Pretend listening gives a feigned appearance to be listening. Selective listening hears one’s agenda, as the WOM and Naked Athena movement did. Empathic listening hears with both one’s heart and mind to understand a person’s feelings and struggles. However, what Martin Luther King preached about in depicting the Beloved Community, and John Lewis wrote about the Beloved Community in his final request to us as Americans require compassionate listening.

Two women talking to each other in front of a laptop
Photo by Christina Morillo

Compassionate listening and empathic listening are related. They differ in that compassionate listening not only hears with one’s heart and mind, but it’s listening with an impetus to help and to improve the lives of the suffering. Compassion means “to suffer together.” From a theological perspective, I understand compassion to be both rooted in the praxis of action and an ethic of social justice. In other words, it is a type of consciousness and “awokeness” to other’s distress—emotionally, personally, and systemically—with a desire to alleviate the suffering.

Therefore, compassionate listening is an understanding of the interconnectedness between ourselves and others. It opens us up to the world. It provides an opportunity for radical inclusion.

The Wall of Moms and Naked Athena might have had a better outcome, and faster success in getting the federal officers out of the city had they listened and embraced BLM’s intersectional concerns and goals. Federal officers are inextricably tied to systemic anti-black racism and police violence. They could have confronted the problem together.

It starts with listening!