If You Want Me to Listen

I host a monthly Solidarity Sunday meeting, an activist organization that writes postcards to Members of Congress, discusses political issues of the month, and invites guest speakers. This past meeting, I invited Jessica, a union organizer I met in grad school where we both studied literature and sometimes Lacan. She came to speak to us about her experiences canvassing for the AFL-CIO. The main points of her talk: the union did not take seriously the hatred she was seeing against Clinton; it is essential that we drop a general smugness and hear people out (not agree with them, just listen.)


During our conversation, I had mentioned that I thought my job had been to disrupt. Living nearby Trump supporters, I had taken it upon myself to voice my opinions that might not necessarily be shared by others. As a person with politically progressive beliefs or intellectually challenging analyses but also generally unwilling to make people feel uncomfortable, I had to combat my own “good girl” upbringing in order to state my anger when it arose and right the perceived wrongs that I heard uttered around me. Not only to resist, but to disrupt other people’s comfortable bubble of intolerance or misunderstanding.

But now, after hearing Jessica recount her experiences canvassing for the union, I was hearing that disruption was futile — a realization I could have guessed for myself had I taken my gut-churning regret for losing my temper at all seriously. Listening was what worked. She said it was her experience as an educator that trained her to knock on doors and discuss voting intentions.

I understood what she meant. When I am challenged in class, or when someone brings up sometimes personal, sometimes offensive material for discussion, rather than engaging that person in a disruptive conversation, I abstract away from it or draw inferences that may be relevant to more than that single person. I deflect the anger away from myself and the class and refocus the question elsewhere. Or I ask a different question.

But these tactics, while necessary in a Comp 101 class, seemed weak, evasive, insincere, a cop out, when discussing welfare, health care, Black Lives Matter. I didn’t want to be saying, “Yes, I see what you’re saying” to a fucking privileged-as-fuck whiner. I wanted to say, “What are you even talking about? What you are saying isn’t even a thing. Read a book.”

As you can see, I get pretty wound up even thinking about situations I’m sure canvassers have to deal with everyday. To add to the mess are the articles and FB posts that fingerwag to their comrades on the Left, telling us to check our anger (and our privilege, of course) and LISTEN. Same thing as Jessica was saying, but not because it’s a strategy to saving the democracy but because it’s the right thing to do. Trump voters deserve to be heard because their (over generalized and often-but-not-always mythic) economic hardship has rocked their faith in the American Dream.

But if that’s so true, then my own anger over the (not-at-all-as mythic or generalized) overt racism, misogyny, xenophobia of Trump voters also deserves an outlet and fuck it get out of my way.

And I still think it’s true. I’m not going to get in the way of any angry progressive who wants to shit on Trump voters (unless they’re just shitting on them for being poor spellers. Back off, grammar police!). And I’m not going to moralize about treating poor people with respect (Of course we will. We’re no millionaires ourselves, but thanks for the reminder). But I will say that, as a strategy to achieving a reachable goal — similar to getting my students to pass this class — learning from classroom conduct may be helpful.

I can easily put on the teacher role. Not the patronizing one who quotes Latin phrases, discusses etymologies, and basically ensures everyone feels inferior. But the collaborative one, who is not at ALL nurturing or maternal or any other such word forbidden from association with one’s professional role that required years of training to reason away any inkling of human feeling. I can be the teacher-canvasser who supports the intellectual digressions of her students and encourages tripping through error to discover success (which is what most ordinary mothers do, btw, but whatever). The one who may think of classroom interactions as both a contact zone — where differences collide and expansion occurs — and, impossibly, a safe space — where the students are protected from judgement because they know that speculation is risky but required if they want to pass the class and/or save the nation.

If the command leveled at progressives to join in conversation and listen to Trump-voting neighbors, in-laws or passersby is suggested as a step in this strategy to save the democracy, slowly and meticulously door by door, rather than guilt-tripped as an appeal to our moral conscience, which is already overfilled with responsibility and rage that adding this extra task is likely to break our souls, then I’m on board.

We have a job to do. I can fully take on the teacherly role, knock on some doors, put on my open-faced smile, and listen to some fucking sophomore-ass bullshit.