Humble Listening

Speaking and listening across political divide in these times is challenging. We are intent on bringing conservative ideas to liberal campuses, or bringing liberal ideas to conservative campuses. We are focused on pulling in thoughts beyond our standard lines of thinking. We seek to break the assumed bubbles in which we exist. However, these efforts are often ineffective due to an absence of true listening.

An example from our campus is particularly salient to this conversation. Recently, AC Voice published a “guest post” that featured discussion regarding President Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries. The article voiced a “different side” of the immigration ban, one that previously had not been discussed in the mainstream on our campus. Unlike their other pieces, AC Voice published a disclaimer to accompany this article: “The following was sent to AC Voice and has been reproduced exactly as received. The editorial staff does not affirm or endorse these views.” The article promptly received criticism both in the comments section and on the social media feeds on which it was shared. Some comments critiqued the article’s content, while others focused on misspellings and grammatical errors.

Not only did AC Voice’s readership respond to the piece, but a member of their editorial staff responded in a formal article. The response begins with the framework under which the article was accepted and published: “… our editorial staff made the decision to publish ‘“Still your president” — the other side of the immigration ban!” in order to communicate to our campus the intellectual quality of some of the arguments supporting President Trump’s actions, and to confront the alarming reality that there are individuals at institutions like Amherst who uncritically subscribe to these dogmas.” The response article goes on to attack each of the arguments set out in the original guest post, not only attacking the content, but once again directly criticizing the author and making assumptions about her intelligence.

The Editorial Board takes many issues with the publication of both the original article and AC Voice’s subsequent response article. First, at the heart of the matter is a problem of journalistic ethics. By publishing a piece that explicitly and admittedly falls below their usual standards of publication, AC Voice failed to adhere to ethical journalistic standards. For other articles, their staff would have edited for basic grammar errors and clarity. Although they do explain their decision in the follow-up article, the reasoning behind their unethical publishing makes it all the more problematic. By stating that they intentionally published the original article without edits, AC Voice exploits the author, discounting her ideas in favor of asserting their assumed moral authority.

While the Editorial Board does not support or agree with the arguments set forth in the original guest post, we do wish to defend the right for these ideas to be voiced and critically engaged with. Had AC Voice actually committed to the journalistic standards they claim to hold, this could have proved a fruitful moment of debate on our liberal campus. The Editorial Board wishes to reaffirm the journalistic flaws of the original article. The author’s arguments were illogical, sensationalist and failed to cite any legitimate sources. But had AC Voice applied its typical standards to the article, the piece could have inspired more critical conversation with her ideas, revealing the weaknesses and strengths within both liberal and conservative beliefs.

By publishing a piece that clearly fell below their usual standards, AC Voice foreclosed any chance of real engagement with unpopular beliefs on campus, dismissing them as inherently unintelligent. Perhaps they are, but automatically dismissing them will not make them disappear.

Regardless of the response article’s arguments, the fact of its publication is troubling. It completely dismisses the student on the basis of her writing. While her article deserves criticism, there is a way to criticize it that does not simply dismiss or dispose of the author. AC Voice’s reaction is elitist and anti-relational. The response piece frames them as self-congratulatory allies, and as if they were operating from a condescending moral high ground. In an eerie way, the article replicates structures of bullying and intimidation. It uses the framework of the very president it seeks to criticize. Granted, its arguments are signficantly more nuanced and logical — but the premise remains damaging. To have meaningful dialogue, we must be conscious of the implicit power structures that exist within our language.

In trying to make sense of how Donald Trump became our president, the community must begin with listening. Listening does not mean simply allowing a person’s words to fill your ears while you wait to respond. Listening means suspending your sense of self for the sake of hearing another’s heart, and not hearing everything filtered through your own interests. In the discussion of present-day politics, this does not mean letting your core beliefs and values falter, but letting your mind be open, temporarily, to genuine contact.

The Editorial Board does not write this article with the intent to shame people of marginalized identities for not wishing to listen to bigotry. We do not seek to enforce respectability politics. Through the specific example of the AC Voice response article, we are speaking to the work of allies, in general. Those who hold positions of power should be doing their part in the activism work that is listening and arguing. Allies bear the responsibility of putting the work first and their egos second. Activism and allyship are not exercises of proving one’s knowledge. Instead, these are activities of deep thinking — conscious effort to dismantle oppressive systems.

It is obvious that there is a divide in political opinion on this campus and in the country as a whole. We keep talking about ways to overcome this divide and finding a way to work together, but few actually put these ideas into practice. The Editorial Board does not claim to know all the answers either. But perhaps suspending ourselves for a moment and actually listening to those with opinions that differ from ours is the place to start.