Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Art of the Audience

One of the problems with the USA's rhetoric about free speech is that it is the speech that is glorified, not the hearing of it. The speaker is the star; no one wants to be the ones sitting quietly and listening. A consequence of this is that, when people get an idea about a subject they bleat it out, loud and proud, deafening themselves to what anybody else has to say.

To be a good audience is an art all by itself; just as musicians are judged by their music and directors by their films, connoisseurs are judged by their taste. The difference being that we are all amateur connoisseurs, whether we want to be or not, and there is value in being a good one. I find this troubling, given that I must not be very high-brow, judging by my love of Star Trek, 90's pro wrestling and The Moody Blues.

But being an audience is about more than having taste; it is about fulfilling your part in the performance by witnessing it and that requires only that you watch, listen and try to take it in. If you do this, you are a good audience. If you talk all the way through it, snore loudly, beat an African drum out of time or just don't bother engaging with it, then you are a bad audience.

Political discussions and debates should be where both parties play both performer and audience, but they're not. Almost all debate is adversarial, between parties standing at their pulpits and never sitting down. Sometimes that can work in a debaters favour, as they are forced to keep coming up with holes in the opponents position and to keep finding more strengths in their own. Mostly, it teaches you finesse, so you never have to admit that you're wrong. However, everyone is wrong sometimes. I know: I have been wrong sometimes, too. In that way, I'm like everyone.

I have not only been wrong, but I've been loud and insulting at the same time. What can I tell you? I am drawn to the fruits of my own mind like a wasp to sugar, and once I have supped its intoxicating nectar, like the wasp I stumble around stinging people at random and frightening the faint of heart. I'm trying to get better. I've been trying for years. I think I'm getting somewhere.

When I first heard the term 'Rape Culture' I thought "That's a dumb term to use - so divisive, empty of meaning, insulting to everyone - it's sure to kill any chance of reasoned debate between feminists and potential allies. Besides, it's probably reactionary claptrap."

But instead of yelling that repeatedly every time it's come up, I've been speaking to a friend I respect about it, in a round about sort of way (i.e. I haven't just said "So; 'Rape culture.' What's that mean?"). She's a woman I've known for years, whose currently studying for a Phd. in the US, and who has been patient enough to put up with my adversarial style of debate (and friendship) for long enough to actually teach me something.

I have come to the conclusion that there is some content in there worth taking seriously. So when a feminist goes on Newsnight and says "Men are raised to hate women" I don't immediately greet it with derision; when I see feminists holding signs saying "Don't teach girls to not get raped: teach your sons not to rape!" I understand that there is a whole background of thought to that statement, and it's not just reactionary, pie-in-the-sky nonsense.

Of course, there is understandable resistance to accepting that there is even such a thing as 'Rape Culture', never mind that it refers to some insidious element woven into the fabric of our society in the ways women are depicted, treated, taught to act, what is expected of them and how they are judged; not only that, but how sex is thought of, how boys are taught to think of sex and girls, and, well, etc.

I like to criticise: it's easier. But proclaiming a belief in something that is so challenging to not just society but my own attitudes seems pretty unwise and sure to backfire. Especially when I'm aligning myself with the more extreme proclamations of a group as bitterly reviled as feminists. But upon hearing the arguments against them, filled with unexamined misogyny, categorically proving their point that there is unexamined misogyny that attacks woman trying to make a point, I can't help but feel people need to listen to them better.

The art of the audience is to listen, the skill of listening is to understand, and to understand something new is to be challenged.

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