Against the backdrop of the baying crowds that now regularly congregate around parliament, Will Self, on Channel 4 News, made an interesting observation: we are currently experiencing a crisis of listening. “You ask me John for a diagnosis of our country’s character, it’s that it doesn’t listen, on either side of the debate.”
I admit, there is a kind of superficial plausibility to this view. Indeed, the call for more listening, like the call for more kindness or more generosity, is never something to decry. Moreover, as the crowds behind Self seemed perfectly to demonstrate, there is a destructive loop that is generated by the feeling of not being heard.
The frustration of not being listened to leads to louder shouting. And the louder people shout, the more others shut down; mute; block. The other side, still unheard, shouts louder still and so it continues. We are all trapped in our own feedback loop, subject to confirmation bias, hearing only what we want to hear.
As the philosopher Gemma Fiumara observes in The Other side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening, there is a “crushing deafness produced by an assertive culture that is intoxicated by the effectiveness of its own ‘saying’, and increasingly incapable of paying ‘heed’”.
Even so, as a diagnosis of our current predicament, I think Self’s position falls short. And for two reasons.
First, the issue of listening speaks to a basic power imbalance. The Brexit debate can be characterised, without too much deformation, as one between a group of people who are used to being listened to and a group who are not. The Remain heartlands are in London, and university towns like Oxford and Cambridge. These places were most enthusiastic in signing up to the petition to cancel Article 50. They are used to being listened to.
On the other hand, the places that were least enthusiastic – seaside towns, former industrial towns in the north – are precisely those places that have been radically unattended to for decades. For Remainers to complain that they are the ones who are not being listened to is a bit rich: for generations, the sort of people who voted Remain have dominated the public conversation.
Moreover, if the Leave vote was generated, in part, by a section of society that felt profoundly unheard, the desire of Remainers to find a way of bypassing the 2016 vote – with the clever ruse of another referendum, for instance – will inevitably be understood as confirmation that the educated, powerful, political class will never listen. And the frustration and anger at not being listened to will inevitably contaminate our common life for decades to come.
To an extent Self is correct. Brexit has become a perfect storm of not being listened to. But the charge of deafness falls more heavily on one side than the other.
The second problem with Self’s position is that it misses the fact that some political differences cannot be sorted out by better, more attentive listening. Writing a few years before he died, the Israeli novelist Amos Oz wrote a compelling series of essays under the title How to Cure a Fanatic. Here he excoriated the perspective of well-meaning liberal Europeans who think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a conflict that can be addressed by better conversation:
“People in Europe keep sending me wonderful invitations to spend a rosy weekend in a delightful resort with Palestinian partners so that we can learn to know one another, to like one another, to drink a cup of coffee together, so that we can realise that no one has horns and tails – and the trouble will go away. This is based on a widespread sentimental European idea that every conflict is no more than a misunderstanding.”
There are, obviously, a million and one ways in which Brexit differs from the violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. But this much can be taken from Oz’s wisdom: the call for better listening can sometimes be a cheap, sentimental form of avoidance – the avoidance of the political. Some differences are not simply differences of understanding. They represent different priorities, clashing commitments. And no amount of listening can solve that.
It seems pretty obvious why we do not listen in periods of political conflict: because giving too much heed to opposing perspectives, especially when it is feared that the compliment may not be returned, is to concede ground. To listen is to acknowledge that the other may be right and that you may be wrong – and that feels like a show of weakness, a lack of commitment. At its most fundamental, the fear of listening is something like this: to listen is to lose.
I don’t know how to get round this. The home-spun wisdom is that to show you have truly listened to an argument so that you understand it, you must be able to be able to repeat it, summarising the thrust. But most Leavers could pretty effectively summarise the Remain position just as most Remainers could summarise the Leave position. This is little more that clever ventriloquy: it’s not that we don’t understand each other. It’s that we do not agree and neither side wants to lose.
That’s why I find myself suspicious of Will Self’s assertion that what we have with Brexit is a crisis of listening. He is obviously right that there is something profoundly unedifying about the way we are all now barking at each other, without anyone hearing a thing. But this can’t be resolved by telling a group of people who have been ignored for generations that they have, once again, to shut up and pay heed to the grown ups.
Indeed, what started as the anger of the unheard has grown beyond that – it is now a political struggle between two very different ways of seeing the world. Calling for a pause in the struggle to make time for coffee and listening will be experienced, perhaps rightly, as a ruse, just another way of playing for time.
No, the problem of listening is simple. Pin your ears back. In 2016, the clear majority of those who spoke asked to leave the EU. Yet ever since, the political class have pretended not to understand, thus insinuating that what was said was itself unclear. It wasn’t unclear, they just didn’t like it. And so what we need now is not more coffee and chat. We need a whole new political class.