No one listens. This is not just a problem plaguing talking heads and politicians. We filter so furiously, we interrupt, we get caught up in our own agendas. We look at our phones. We need a snack. Other people speak, and we hear only what gets through the internal static. I criticize myself equally in this. It is very, very hard to create a small, still space for someone else’s voice. It’s almost impossible to listen through fear.
This is part of why the “human microphone,” consensus-based meetings that are happening in the Occupy Wall Street protests sound so amazing, and must be so insufferable to sit through, and are, in their acts of radical listening, so hard for the quick-fix media to hear.
I grew up in Berkeley, and I am old enough to remember it before it became quite such a hotbed of the self-righteous rich. (Don’t get me wrong. It has always been lefty and self-righteous. But now it’s self-righteous with a two million dollar view of the Bay, as opposed to self-righteous with patchouli oil and a co-housing agreement that includes shared watering of the pot plants growing in the dumb-waiter.) As a result of my upbringing, I have been to the occasional consensus-based meeting.
Let me be clear: I do not believe that hearing everyone is always possible. I was once at a meeting where terrible and unjust decisions were made despite one speaker having opened with “I want to couch this in a big ball of white light.” I hear “this is what democracy looks like,” and I think, “sometimes.” I flinch at protest-for-the-sake-of-protest.
And yet, I find the following description of the Occupy Wall Street protesters incredibly moving:
I have been through a few general assemblies now, and they are remarkable because the point of the assembly is to truly put listening at the heart of decision-making. There’s no electronic amplification allowed in Zuccotti Square. So the organizers have figured out an organic microphone system. A speaker says a half a sentence, everyone in earshot repeats, until the whole park can hear that half a sentence. Then the speaker says another half a sentence. People use hand signals to indicate approval, disapproval, get a move on, or various forms of objections and clarifications. During these speeches, speakers often explicitly ask for more gender and racial diversity, which is known as ‘progressive stacking.’
At first blush, this sounds like it would have me throwing the proverbial conch on the ground and cutting my wrists with the shards. Finish the sentence!! Oh… My…. Lord….
But he continues:
At first it’s extremely… annoying. And time-consuming…. But what I realized is that the act of listening, embedded in the active reflecting of what the speaker was saying, created a far richer conversational space. Actually reflecting back to one another what someone just said is a technique used by therapists, and by pandering politicians. There is nothing so euphoric in a community sense as truly feeling heard. That’s what the general assembly was about, not a democracy in the sense of voting, but a democracy in the sense of truly respecting the humanity of everyone in the forum. It took work. It took patience. But it created a communal sense of power.
I don’t pretend to have anything new to say, just yet, about whatever precise political agenda this group does—or does not, or refuses to—take.
But I am struck by how people seem, in such a profoundly human way, to be saying: Listen. Please listen. Something is not right.
I have been in situations where a commitment to consensus meant paralysis. I have been in situations where “everyone got to talk so everyone is represented” was lip-service paid to prop up one man’s authority. And on a more technical level, there is no method by which a democracy the size of ours could function this way consistently.
But there is something raw and gorgeous and furious in the energy coming off of these gatherings. Power and influence ignore and mock such energy at their own peril.
Look at this blog. Listen.
In 1999, K. and I were standing on a dark street in Boston, and he tried to convince me to run off to Seattle with him, to protest the WTO. “This is a defining moment,” he told me. Right now, looking at this, reading this, trying hard to listen to this… I find myself unsure what to think but lapsing into my native tongue: Something is going down.