For some unknown reason (he smiles), I had the urge — following last evening’s debate of vice presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Mike Pence — to return and read two of my previous posts* on listening.
I had a special need to reconnect with my pleas for white men in power to stop talking and listen.
Of course, if you follow the news or watched any of the debate, you know why this subject needs addressing. Vice President Pence talked all over the two women on the stage: Senator Harris and the moderator Susan Page. News reports suggest that he interrupted Harris twice as much as she interrupted him, and he repeatedly went over his time limit, ignoring the pleas of the moderator. Yes, he was marginally more “polite” than President Trump was in last week’s debate. But I personally find the Vice President to be very passive aggressive — standing as both victim and condescending persecutor — and he used that persona last evening to act as if the rules didn’t apply to him. He refused to answer the moderator’s queries while he tried to get Harris to answer his own “gotcha” questions. From my perspective, it was another sad example of the lack of true, empathetic, and competent leadership in the current administration.
Mike Pence and Donald Trump come from an age where white men, through unearned privilege, had the entire stage to themselves. Both are very reluctant to give up that privilege.
I know the situation well because I have been in the same position, largely as a result of the accident of being born white and male. Yet because of the guidance provided by my parents and several female mentors in my life, I came to realize the imbalance of this power dynamic and the loss we all suffer when women are not allowed to speak.
I’ve written about this on several occasions as a reminder to be my better self. Yes, old habits can certainly be very hard to break, as seen in my difficulty in breaking out of the mold of being a stereotypical male. And I’m reminded of this far too often and in many different ways. One of the more consistent occurrences involves listening. Or, to be more accurate, not listening.
The stereotype is that men are encouraged, and even trained, to be the center of attention. It is a stereotype, in this case, because it is usually true. Studies show that boys are called on more in school, that boys grow up to become men who talk more in meetings, and that we interrupt women more than we interrupt men.
Most of the time I fall into this pattern of interruption because I’m not thinking. But a few times I do it knowingly and with the best of intentions. That was the case when I found myself last year talking over a friend to “help her” explain something that I thought might be difficult to articulate. Not because she isn’t a smart, articulate person, but because I perceived it could be an emotionally difficult subject.
I interrupted her attempt to talk to me. Later, when I was home and reflecting on the conversation, I realized that I didn’t really know how she felt, because I had spoken over her and inserted my perceptions over hers. The next time we spoke I apologized. And then I asked if she would talk while I promised to be quiet and listen. But the moment had passed and she couldn’t remember, or didn’t want to return, to the topic.
So both my friend and I lost out by my decision to talk instead of listen.
Regular readers know that I often refer back to a thoughtful collection of essays by the writer Rebecca Solnit. Titled after the first in the collection and her best-known essay — Men Explain Things to Me — these nine pieces written between 2008 and 2014 explore multiple topics including the gender wars and male privilege, the use of violence as a way of silencing speech, abuse of power, a new twist on marriage equality, and more. Through them all, Solnit pushes the reader to consider perspectives that are likely to be outside their comfort zone.
Men Explain Things to Me begins with the comic scene of a man explaining Solnit’s most recent book to her — even though he never read anything more of her work than the New York Times book review. Even after he is told that he is talking to the author, he doesn’t stop, but explains what her own book — which, again, he has never read — means.
Yes, it is a comic scene, but she ends this piece on a serious note, “because the ultimate problem is the silencing of women who have something to say, including those saying things like, ‘He’s trying to kill me!’” Each essay in this collection has something important to say and I strongly recommend them all. Solnit is a clear thinker and talented writer.
Listening is an act of love. However, as much as I try to act out of love for others, this is obviously a part of my practice in life that needs more work. Recognition is only part of the solution. Active, intentional listening requires more.
Men who are privileged (virtually all white males) and who have power often complain or push back about being made to feel uncomfortable. Solnit, in another set of essays, makes the point that,
“Comfort is often a code word for the right to be unaware, the right to have no twinges of one’s conscience, no reminders of suffering, the right to be a ‘we’ whose benefits are not limited by the needs and rights of any of ‘them.’”
Solnit suggests that, “The world is an uneven surface, with plenty to trip on and room to reinvent.” But she has this equal parts hopeful and challenging observation: “This country has room for everybody who believes that there’s room for everybody. For those who don’t — well, that’s why there’s a battle about whose story it is to tell.”
In thinking back, and then looking forward, to my conversations, I’m trying to listen with love. To push myself out of the need to feel comfortable. And, even, to reinvent my world to be a more inclusive place.
Now wouldn’t that be wonderful for everyone involved?
More to come…