The idea that the right to listen to one another should be defended in a democracy seems strange. That’s probably because we lack a shared vocabulary or framework for understanding listening as a political act. We pay lip service to the idea of listening: stage-managed “town-hall meetings,” at which politicians and candidates respond to curated questions from a screened audience, are a familiar part of the political landscape. In 2017, Mark Zuckerberg embarked on a highly publicized national “listening tour,” which yielded photographs of him riding a tractor with a farmer, going to church in a small town, helping out on an automobile assembly line, and so on. No one really imagined that Zuckerberg would listen to anything the people he visited had to say. We expect powerful people to be talkers, not listeners.
Philosophers, too, have thought mostly about speech—biased, perhaps understandably, toward dazzling utterances. When Aristotle declared man a “political animal,” he argued that what distinguished us from other creatures was our capacity for rational discourse. Modern philosophers have developed a framework of “deliberative democracy” in which oration and argument, declamation and debate, play out in an idealized public sphere. Careers have been made studying “speech-act theory,” which examines how certain verbal expressions do things in the world (a judge declaring a defendant “guilty,” for instance, or a couple “married”). A corresponding “listening-act theory” doesn’t yet exist.
But to listen is to act; of that, there’s no doubt. It takes effort and doesn’t happen by default. As anyone who has been in a heated argument—or who’s simply tried to coexist with family members, colleagues, friends, and neighbors—well knows, it’s often easier not to listen. We can tune out and let others’ words wash over us, hearing only what we want to hear, or we can pantomime the act of listening, nodding along while waiting for our turn to speak. Even when we want to be rapt, our attentions wane. Deciding to listen to someone is a meaningful gesture. It accords them a special kind of recognition and respect