“A World Full of People Just Livin’ To Be Heard”

I don’t ordinarily take my cues from John Mellencamp lyrics, but … consider:

“A million young poets
Screamin’ out their words
To a world full of people
Just livin’ to be heard”

The story of modernity could be neatly arranged around the theme of voice. As modernity unfolded, more and more people found a way to be heard; they found their voice, often at great cost and sacrifice. Protestantism gave a voice to the laity. Democratic movements gave a voice to the citizen. Labor movements gave a voice to the worker. The woman’s movement gave a voice to women. Further examples come readily to mind, but you get the point. And along the way certain technologies played a critical role in this expansion and proliferation of voice. One need only consider print’s relationship to the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

Of course, this way of telling the story will strike some as rather whiggish, and perhaps rightly so. It is simplistic, certainly. And yet it does seem plain enough that more people, and a greater diversity of people, now have not only the freedom to speak, but the means to do so as well.

Much of the rhetoric that surrounded the advent of the World Wide Web, particularly in its 2.0 iteration, triumphantly characterized the Internet as the consummation of this trajectory of empowerment. It was wildly utopian rhetoric; and although the utopian hope has not yet been realized, it is nonetheless true that blogs and social media have at least made it possible for a very great number of people to speak publicly, and sometimes with great (if ephemeral) consequence.

More significantly, it seems to me, the use of social media nurtures the impulse to speak. The platforms by their very design encourage users to speak often and continually. They feature mechanisms of response that act not unlike little Pavlovian pellets of affirmation to keep us speaking in the hopes that Likes and retweets and comments will follow.

We are all learning to “speak in memes,” as Nathan Jurgenson has recently put it. What is most significant about this may be the assumption that we will speak. We are conditioning our speech to fit the medium, but that we will speak is no longer in question.

Fine. Well and good. Speak, and speak truthfully and boldly — at least interestingly.

But what about hearing and listening? While we have been vigorously enlarging our voices, we appear to have neglected the art of listening. We want to be heard, of course, but are we as intent on listening? Do we desire to understand as ardently as we desire to be understood?

There is an art to listening, one might even say that it is a kind of virtue. At the very least it requires certain virtues. Patience certainly, and humility as well. One might even say courage, for what you learn when you listen may very well threaten beliefs and convictions that are very dear and defining. In any case, listening is not easy or even natural. It is a discipline. It must be cultivated with great care and it requires, to some degree, a willingness to still the impulse to speak.

It requires as well a wanton disregard for the pace of Internet time. Internet time demands near instantaneous responses; but listening sometimes takes more time than that afforded by the meme cycle.

Often listening depends on silence and deep, unbroken attentiveness.

Listening, honest listening happens when there is tacit permission to be silent in response. Otherwise, listening is overwhelmed by the pressure to formulate a response. And, of course, if, while I am ostensibly listening, I am only thinking about what to say in response, I’m probably not really listening — more like reloading.

“We’re living to be heard” — I suspect there is something rather profound about that observation. Perhaps Mellencamp spoke better than he knew. It seems to me though, that those who would be heard ought also to hear. We have our voices, but only if we learn to listen in equal measure will this ever mean a thing.

5 thoughts on ““A World Full of People Just Livin’ To Be Heard”

  1. Excellent! Loved in particular “little Pavlovian pellets of affirmation.” This nails a very important problem with the information revolution, imo (and also, btw, with “the priesthood of all believers.”) I considered at one point writing a book that was framed as a history of the microphone, because in so many ways that’s what technology is, a vehicle to amplify our “voices,” not just our literal voices, but our metaphoric voices, our “footprints,” i.e., our impact on the world in an infinite variety of ways. Attention, it seems to me, is a zero sum game: when we focus on one thing our focus on something else necessarily declines. Speaking/listening seems to follow that formula.

  2. Thank you Michael for your words about listening. I’ve kept your reflections into mine, and let them listen to each other: so, despite the great distance between you and me (I’m writing from Italy), I improve my art of listening. I have never met you in body, but I do follow and I listen very friendly to your “frailest things”. Thanks to our common friend, Ivan Illich, master of the listeners.
    andrea g. sciffo (monza, IT)

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