The Right to Listen
Last winter, I found myself seated around a massive table with about forty others on the ground floor of the historic Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, in Chicago. A group of curators had invited me to participate in “Parts of Speech,” an exhibit consisting of six lectures by six artists held at venues across the city. Instead of a typical talk, where I’d speak from a stage or behind a lectern, I’d proposed hosting a debtors’ assembly—a forum where people could share stories of their financial hardship.
I’d never hosted such an assembly before. As the participants (not “audience members”) trickled into the room, I reminded myself that the event was supposed to be about listening, not talking. Even so, I couldn’t resist making some opening remarks. I told the group that my work as an organizer and documentary filmmaker had led me to understand listening as a deeply political act, and an underappreciated one. I suggested that our lack of attention to listening connected to the larger crisis of American democracy, in which the wealthy and powerful shape the discourse while many others go unheard. After I’d finished, Laura Hanna, the co-director of the Debt Collective, an economic-justice group I’d helped found, reeled off statistics demonstrating that we live with Gilded Age levels of inequality. Then she invited people to share their stories. In that ornate, wood-panelled room, an ominous silence descended. Looking from one quiet face to another, I panicked. What if no one talked?
The first person to speak confessed to owing a hundred and fifty thousand dollars in student loans; many people in his life were unsympathetic to his plight, he said, because he had studied art and not “law or something.” A young woman began to cry. “I’m a first-generation student, I come from a family of poverty,” she said. “Sorry if I get emotional, but I’m here with my little one, and I’m thinking about her future. I’m a hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars in student-loan debt, and that’s a huge number.” When she finished, the room burst into applause.
The dam broke. A young man spoke of a mental-health crisis that had caused his debt to balloon; it included ambulance and hospital bills that took three years to pay off. A middle-aged woman described herself as “teetering at that edge of poverty” after she quit her job because of racist comments made by a colleague; her high debt load meant she couldn’t help her college-age son. Another woman explained that her hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars in student loans were overwhelming not just her but her mother, who had taken many of them out on her behalf; she described the pain of feeling judged a failure when you are trying the best you can. An older man told how, after arriving as a refugee from Liberia, he’d thought education would be a lifeline. He’d gotten a degree in chemistry and then attended nursing school, but now the money he owed was a trap from which he couldn’t escape.
As the forum progressed, the mood in the room changed. Some people listened silently. Others, taking it all in, felt emboldened to reveal hardships they’d been reluctant to divulge elsewhere. A few got fired up: after hearing others’ stories, the crying woman asked, “How can this be legal?” A mountain of debt and shame was becoming visible—an overwhelming burden that was also a common bond. I’d suggested a debtors’ assembly because I wanted to create a space in which both sides of the communicative coin—speaking and listening—could be valued equally. Even so, I found myself surprised by listening’s power. Though I work on issues of inequality, I was stunned by how much suffering the circle held.
“We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak,” the stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote, two thousand years ago. That’s long been one of my favorite quotes. The truth, though, was that it had been a long time since I’d had an opportunity to listen, silently and at length, to what many other people had to say. Afterward, walking in the cold, I couldn’t help but think of listening as something we’re all entitled to—a right we’re often denied, and that the assembly had just reclaimed. Today, we are constantly reminded of the importance of free speech and the First Amendment; we exalt freedom in the expressive realm. Is there some corresponding principle of listening worth defending?
We expect powerful people to be talkers, not listeners.
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.
In 2015, I began making a documentary called “What Is Democracy?”—a feature exploring the fate of self-government in the Trump era. Immediately, I remembered that one of the hardest things about beginning to shoot a new documentary is remembering how to listen. I had to make a concerted effort to bite my tongue, so as not to babble over my subjects, ruining the footage (the way I had, to my eternal embarrassment, during my first film shoot, more than fifteen years ago). I found that listening well, so that I could respond genuinely and substantively, was exhausting work.
One of the things I heard, when I listened, was that many of the people I spoke with—immigrant factory workers, asylum seekers, former prisoners, schoolchildren—simply assumed that no one was interested in listening to them. At a community center in Miami, I asked a group of teen-agers if they ever discussed democracy at school. “Yes, but it’s about branches of government,” a boy said. “They don’t ask us, ‘How do you feel about the school?’ ” As far as the kids could tell, their opinions didn’t matter to their teachers or the administrators in charge, and they didn’t feel there was much they could do about it. “My voice isn’t going to change anything,” a girl told me, with a shrug. I asked them whether they thought the adults in their lives had more of a say than they did. “I don’t think people of higher power really want to hear a black mom that’s poor in a ghetto,” the girl responded, matter-of-factly. Similarly, a boy warned, an adult standing up for himself at work would only get into trouble; it was better not to speak out and “just get it over with.” Their certainty about going unheard was painful to hear.
It wasn’t just other people’s voices that preoccupied me. When I began filming “What Is Democracy?,” I cringed at my own voice, which sounds nothing like the voices of the men who generally occupy positions of cinematic authority. For better and worse, my documentary sensibility has been shaped by male directors, such as Errol Morris, Adam Curtis, and Werner Herzog, whom viewers can often hear offscreen, asking probing questions or providing erudite commentary. I had fully absorbed the sound of the male auteur and sage.
Early in the filmmaking process, I stumbled across “The Public Voice of Women,” an essay by the classicist-turned-television presenter Mary Beard. From antiquity onward, Beard traces the ways women have been muted and mocked, compared to braying donkeys and worse. She quotes the lecturer Dio Chrysostom—“the Golden Mouth”—who, in the second century A.D., asked his audience to imagine what he considered to be a nightmare scenario: “An entire community . . . struck by the following strange affliction: all the men suddenly got female voices, and no male—child or adult—could say anything in a manly way. Would not that seem terrible and harder to bear than any plague?”
Over the centuries, we’ve been taught to believe that deep voices are deep. Margaret Thatcher, famously, took lessons with a speech coach at the National Theatre to learn how to lower her pitch; Theresa May has admitted to modulating her delivery in the House of Commons, lest she sound a “shrill note.” I realized that I had a version of the same impulse. Beard’s essay turned a dial in my head; I began to hear myself and others in new ways. Re-watching Herzog’s films, for example, I found myself imagining how their reception might shift if they were narrated by a California Valley Girl instead of a man with an imposing Bavarian accent. “What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark? It would be like sleep without dreams,” my imagined feminine narrator would lilt. Why shouldn’t she come off as equally profound?
A listener, when she realizes that she struggles to attend to only certain kinds of voices, apprehends the divisions in society. How we hear someone relates to that person’s gender, race, sexual orientation, age, physical ability, and wealth. Some voices are perceived as authoritative, others are ignored; some are broadcast around the world, others fade for lack of funds. Attempting to create what the essayist Rebecca Solnit calls “a democracy of equal audibility” is a social enterprise—it’s one of the tasks of feminist, anti-racist, and economic-justice movements. What would such a democracy sound like? Certainly not like one booming bass note.
The social prejudices that muffle other frequencies are often reinforced by those invested in the status quo. Some critics of the freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez complain that she sounds like a teen-age girl—as if that were such a terrible thing to be. Every time she speaks on the floor of the House of Representatives, Ocasio-Cortez helps to establish that higher-pitched voices can also be heard as commanding and capable. Greta Thunberg, a seventeen-year-old girl with Asperger’s syndrome, similarly extends our auditory range. But Thunberg also points us toward another set of obstacles impeding our ability to hear. “Listen to the scientists,” she often says. It’s no accident that, for many people, listening to them has been difficult: fossil-fuel companies have spent millions to spread misinformation about climate change. To defend our right to listen to one another, we must sometimes strain to hear voices that the powerful would drown out.
This past October, two years after the conclusion of his listening tour, Zuckerberg was questioned in Congress by Ocasio-Cortez. She noted that “the official policy of Facebook”—which has declared that it won’t ban ads that contain well-documented lies—“now allows politicians to pay to spread disinformation.” She wanted to know how far this policy could be pushed. Would she, for example, be allowed to run ads falsely claiming that Republican candidates up for reëlection had voted for the Green New Deal?
“Probably,” Zuckerberg said. The previous week, he had delivered a lecture at Georgetown University titled “Standing for Voice and Free Expression.” In it, he had placed his company in a lineage of free-speech pioneers, including Eugene Debs and Martin Luther King, Jr. “The ability to speak freely has been central in the fight for democracy worldwide,” he said. The central argument of the speech was that any attempt on Facebook’s part to distinguish between deliberate disinformation and ordinary free speech would be anti-democratic.
How might Zuckerberg’s rhetoric strike us if we also saw the ability of citizens to hear one another as central to democracy? From that perspective, the deliberate pollution of our common listening space might register as an anti-democratic act. The listening perspective is especially useful today, in the age of digital media. While Facebook and other social-media platforms do facilitate speech, their business models revolve, in a fundamental way, around the manipulation and commodification of listening. We can shout into the social-media void for free because what we say reveals valuable information about us; that information is then used to divide us into hyper-specific audiences. To maximize the effectiveness of the advertising targeted to those audiences, the platforms encourage certain kinds of attention more than others. A deluge of content and commentary—in which paid advertising, some of it political and deceptive, circulates alongside funny memes, awe-inspiring animal videos, and grassroots opinion—keeps us scrolling, conjuring the illusion of listening. But, by design, such feeds amplify the shallow, outrageous, and self-promoting, discouraging the prolonged engagement that deeper forms of listening require. The difference between the Facebook news feed and the debtors’ assembly couldn’t be more stark.
It can seem as though there’s no principled way out of this conundrum: if you equate democracy with the proliferation of free speech, then how can you, in good conscience, restrict it? And yet—even setting aside the fact that social-media platforms already manipulate the mix of messages we encounter—the history of thought about free speech does contain ideas that can be of use. Among them are the concepts of “audience interests” and the “right to hear,” which have been repeatedly recognized by the Supreme Court. These concepts see the First Amendment from a listener’s point of view. In addition to asking, “Do I have the right to speak,” Genevieve Lakier, a professor at the University of Chicago School of Law, told me, we can ask, “Am I, as a listener, genuinely hearing a diverse and representative array of views?”
The Court, Lakier has shown, took audience interests seriously during the New Deal era. In Thornhill v. Alabama, from 1940, it recognized a union’s right to engage in peaceful picketing; the case was about free speech—the plaintiff, Byron Thornhill, was arrested while on the picket line—but the Court’s judgment addressed the importance of listening, too. One reason why the arrest was wrong, the Justices concluded, was that citizens needed to hear what was being said: pickets could convey valuable information about working conditions, the causes of labor disputes, and how to regulate industry. In other First Amendment disputes from the period, Lakier said—including cases about pamphleting—the Court furthered the cause of free expression by defending “the audience’s right to have a diverse public sphere.” Taking this right seriously entailed, inevitably, the consideration of economic disparities, so that what the Court called the “poorly financed causes of the little people” might get a fair hearing.
These cases pointed in the direction of a democratic right to listen. But, today, audience interests are more likely to be invoked in defense of advertising or big political donors. In the infamous Citizens United v. F.E.C. decision, from 2010, which undid campaign-finance restrictions on free-speech grounds, the Court looked to a 1978 opinion, First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, which argued that audiences had an interest in hearing what corporations had to say. In that opinion, the Justices presaged, with uncanny precision, the click-maximizing ethos of the Facebook news feed: “The inherent worth of the speech in terms of its capacity for informing the public does not depend upon the identity of its source, whether corporation, association, union, or individual,” they wrote. It’s not too late to return to the more nuanced conception of audience interest that we used to favor. A revival of that older view might light the way toward a digital future in which meaningful democratic listening has a fighting chance.
In 2016, during one of the first shoots for “What Is Democracy?,” I stood near Miami Beach, asking people to share their political opinions on camera. Three middle-aged men on vacation from New Jersey sat down on a park bench to chat. They sang the praises of a Republican candidate for President named Donald Trump, and offered their thoughts about immigration (bad), taxes (too high), and police violence against black people (not a problem). It was only a few minutes before one of them mentioned free speech. “Here, we have freedom to express,” he said, of the United States. “Like when Joe was just explaining about his racism, six large black men walked by. I thought there might be a problem. Not in this country! They heard it, it’s democracy. Joe can say whatever he wants.” What made America great, they suggested, was every individual’s right to say anything, without reserve and without inviting a response. This was a conception of democratic life that centered on self-expression, with listening left out. In its version of democracy, speech need only go one way.
The men on the bench were hardly unique in overlooking listening as an important component of democracy. As an activist on the left, I long assumed that my role consisted entirely of raising awareness, sounding alarms, and deploying arguments; it took me years to realize that I needed to help build and defend spaces in which listening could happen, too. As citizens, we understand that the right to speak has to be facilitated, bolstered by institutions and protected by laws. But we’ve been slow to see that, if democracy is to function well, listening must also be supported and defended—especially at a moment when technological developments are making meaningful listening harder.
By definition, democracy implies collectivity; it depends on an inclusive and vibrant public sphere in which we can all listen to one another. We ignore that listening at our peril. Watching “What Is Democracy?” today, I find that the answer lies not just in the voices of the people I interviewed. It’s also in the shots of people listening, receptively, as others speak.
Astra Taylor is the director of the documentary films “Zizek!” and “Examined Life” and the author of “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age,” winner of the 2015 American Book Award. She is a Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow and an EHRP Puffin Fellow.
Co-published with The New Yorker.