Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Everyone's talking, but who's listening?

I was in the car this afternoon listening to Jean Feraca's "Here on Earth" on Wisconsin Public radio. Her guest was Les Back, author of The Art of Listening, a book about being a good listener in a society that's overloaded with too many voices, endless stimuli and too much information. All too often, instead of really listening, we're saying to ourselves -- or even to the speaker -- "Get to the point, cut to the chase." If you want to listen, the mp3 will be up here for download soon.

Back talks about some of his ideas in this article titled "The Listeners."
"You do not interest me. No man can say these words to another without committing a cruelty and offending against justice," writes philosopher Simone Weil. To turn a deaf ear is an offence not only to the ignored person but also to thinking, justice and ethics. Coleridge's Ancient Mariner is cursed because no one will listen to his story. The Italian chemist-turned-writer Primo Levi was preoccupied with this fable because of his fear that on returning from Auschwitz people like him would be either ignored or simply disbelieved. Regardless, listening gets a very mixed press amongst critics and intellectuals. There is a suspicion of "wistful optimism" or the quasi-religious appeal to "hold hands" and play priest at the confessional. These qualms miss the centrality of listening to a radical humanism which recognises that dialogue is not merely about consensus or agreement but engagement and criticism. This is something that Primo Levi understood.
He's worth listening to.

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