The Politics Of Listening

Hear what is being said beyond the heated clamor of elections.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

The routine competitive elections that once made the United States the global standard of a diverse people perfecting their union at the ballot box have, not unexpectedly, turned into a spectacle of contention in the throes of uncivil enmity on the brink of unrest.

Electoral democracy, reputed to be the best way to change a society that is not working, appears as well to be an effective means to forestall it. Even if Joe Biden has been declared the winner, the stubborn standoff between the forces of restoration and the forces of transformation remains. It is as if two unalterably opposed nations are living a different reality on the same territory with no bridge across the roiling waters that divide them.

As naive as it may sound in the heat of this moment that could last weeks, there is no way forward other than getting the riven body politic on the same page. That will not only require some adults in the room who can forge a governing consensus, but also hearing the raw voices of the upcoming generation still far from the halls of power and the voting booth. It is, after all, what matters most to them that will mark the challenges America’s fractured democracy will have to resolve if it is to survive into the future.

In Noema this week, Eddie Barnes reflects on his experience of passing through the numbing gauntlet of partisan polarization both in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 and later the Brexit vote of 2016 — early harbingers of the hard politics of the Trump era in the U.S.

How, he asks, did reasoned persuasion fail to win over the other side?

He cites a 2019 book by Eleanor Gordon-Smith titled, “Stop Being Reasonable”: “When it comes to public discourse,” he writes, “we rationalists seem to think that the ‘proper’ way to engage in persuasive discourse is to ‘step into a kind of disinfected argumentative operating theatre where the sealed air-conditioning vents stop any everyday fluff from floating down and infecting the sterilized truth.’ Our ‘clods of humanity’ and our ‘muddy reality’ — our emotion, ego, history, culture — are all left outside. Somehow, we convince ourselves that the process of changing peoples’ minds involves a ‘gladiatorial contest of ideas where we leave the persona behind.’” In short, let’s realize that all politics is persona.

He continues: “Antiseptic rational discourse doesn’t get close to reflecting the soiled, complex assault on our senses that adds up to our experience of life. … And when we respond to this failure by just getting shoutier and shoutier, and more disdainful and contemptuous of the other side, should we be surprised when they take even less time to examine our arguments?”

As a result, so much of politics these days is a “performative” waste of time as each side mobilizes all efforts to dominate the memes of the moment.

A “process of unlearning” is now necessary that unravels this performative politics, Barnes argues. Above all, that entails rediscovering empathy, the core attribute of open societies seeking consensus, instead of embracing the endless us vs. them animosity that paralyzes any possibility of civil discourse.

“Seeking out common values and shared common space, building ‘empathy bridges,’ spending 90 seconds just listening to somebody of a different political opinion and agreeing to ditch the pointless chase for likes on social media are all ways to cut through,” he writes. “They may help return the focus to a great founding democratic notion: the battle of ideas and the search for solutions. … After this last fractious decade of futile division, it is a goal we can all unite around.”

At a time when today’s unsettled youth are regularly renouncing the future bequeathed to them, from ongoing racial injustice to a hothouse planet, empathy must also be generational. Some of the most eloquent voices we can listen to are the teenage poets who pour out their angst in verse.

In Noema this week, we feature two such talented poets, 15-year-old Salome Agbaroji and 14-year-old Violeta Esquivel. To get the full impact, you need to watch these compelling videos as they recite their poems right from the heart.

Agbaroji, who positions her viewpoint as a child “on the outside looking in,” wonders when racial justice will ever arrive. “We’ve been driving for 400 years, and I’m getting car sick. So mama, are we there yet?!” she beseeches. How much longer will it take to get there?

The future
No matter how fast we drive
It is coming

These wheels are the movement
This will,
Fueled by the heartbeat under the pavement,
Is the ignition
We drive
GPS set destination: FUTURE
Are we there yet?

Esquivel’s focus is on climate change.

Mermaid Goddesses know that climate change is real
As our oceans spike a fever 
from the Northeast Atlantic to the Western Pacific
Waves and worries increase,
Kelp forests dying,
Plankton poisoned, 
leaving nothing left to snack on.

She takes aim at our consumer society as the culprit poisoning the seas and clogging the atmosphere with carbon:

I’ve got gadgets and gizmos aplenty
I’ve got whozits and whatzits galore
You want thingamabobs? I’ve got twenty
But who cares? No big deal. I want more!

Esquivel appeals to her metaphoric mermaids to show the way forward:

Be careful when you ride the waves of the future
Remember your beauty on the inside
Your compassion for the climate
Hope for your home.
Have no fear of depth as rising sea levels become the new normal.
Lil’ ones, use your voice, keep our home healthy.

Where reason may fail, concerted empathy and poetic intuition may succeed. In diverse and open societies with so many distinct voices, only a politics of listening, in the halls of power and outside, will get us anywhere.

We won’t ever get there
Until we finally hear
All that is being said
So loud and clear.