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PALKO POV: Learning to Listen - and Listening to Learn

Senator Shelley Moore Capito opened the Women’s Global Leadership Forum in November with an inspiring keynote focused on Women and Democracy in the 21st Century. The Women’s Center is proud to count Sen. Capito among the winners of our Distinguished Alumna Award (2009). Over the years, we’ve given this award to alumnae from seven of UVA’s schools and in doing we always learn something specific about how their experience at the University prepared them to make important contributions in their fields.

From Sen. Capito’s remarks on Grounds last fall it was clear how the M.Ed. in Counseling that she earned from the Curry School of Education continues to inform her day-to-day work and her sense of what the next generation of women leaders and their allies need to know. The power of “listening [to] really open your mind” was a strong refrain throughout her reflections both on the valuable lessons and skills that she learned during her time on Grounds and on her thoughts about contemporary politics. She took care to address the students in the audience in particular, telling them, “Especially key in today’s world, […] I learned that listening cannot be overvalued.” This is valuable advice for all of us to heed.

Conventional wisdom is fairly confident that we are at a pivotal moment, as Sen. Capito said, in our country and society: “Changes in our society I think are resulting in systemic deficiencies in our politics.  Social media and the proliferation of information which allows us to make significant strides in education and other areas has given us both the tool and the license to wall ourselves off from information that challenges our preconceived notions.” The danger in walling ourselves off, as she identified it, is that “instead of listening to one another and to those who have different experiences that we can find value in, we’re just basically reinforcing our own prejudices. […] This makes it difficult to meet the myriad challenges that face us.”

“No one person is above the pursuit of knowledge. Everyone has a story to tell that can give you a more complete picture of where you want to go and the world as it is. And it can help you, make you be what you want to be, if you just listen. Humility and an open mind are a powerful tandem,” Sen. Capito said. For me this called to mind the conversations about sexual harassment that the #MeToo movement is prompting. Longstanding efforts to call out sexual harassment and the need for boundaries to be respected have included the courageous testimony of women like Anita Hill and Tarana Burke. If the #MeToo movement they inspired proves to be transformative, it will be because enough people heard and heeded the call to listen to the stories that other people have to tell. In this case, those stories are mostly told by women living in bodies that society has over-sexualized.

I’ve had uncomfortable but important conversations with men recently, where they have expressed fears that their words might be taken the wrong way, that a friendly overture might be misconstrued as harassment. I don’t have a quick and easy answer. I’ve seen the rapid internet responses to this sentiment, the memes that point out that this self-censorship is what women live with all of the time. (True.) I’m of two minds about how effective this response is. Yes, it offers the opportunity to build empathy with those whose ways of moving through the world are shaped by very different experiences. But on the other hand, a reflexive dismissal of these worries forestalls opportunities to engage in genuine dialogue. There is a desperately needed conversation about appropriate ways to interact. As a society, we need to do some hard thinking about what forms of “manhood” we value, what forms of "womanhood," and how we interact with each other as human beings and not overly sexualized stereotypes.

I’ve also seen the rush to judge, a rush that seems to be attempting to rectify generations’ refusal to hear women’s testimony by a rapid response that, ironically, still does not do the difficult work of deeply listening, sitting, and processing the words chosen to express a painful experience. The fine line between believing people and protecting due process is difficult to walk – but everyone’s wellbeing depends upon us identifying and holding to it.

Like so many of the other conversations that I advocate, this is a thorny one, with a topic that many people are uncomfortable discussing. As a society, we don’t like it when inappropriate behavior is called out in a way that asks us take a stand. In one of her NY Times columns, Lindy West relayed how she sought to bring this challenging conversation into everyday context by asking two male friends if they “ever stick up for me.” She reminds us that our culture’s default is to police not the inappropriate behavior, but the efforts to curb it:

For the most part, the only people weathering those consequences are the ones who don’t have the luxury of staying quiet. Women, already impeded and imperiled by sexism, also have to carry the social stigma of being feminist buzzkills if they call attention to it. People of color not only have to deal with racism; they also have to deal with white people labeling them “angry” or “hostile” or “difficult” for objecting. 

We’ve all been trained to “equate a woman’s (you can sub “gay man’s” or ‘transperson’s” here) voice or ideas with irrationality, anxiousness, or lack of understanding the real issues of life.” As a result, “This is the baseline emotional reality of heteronormative men that the #metoo movement is charging at on the open field.” The yoga teacher and author Matthew Remski argues that “minimization – the most socially-acceptable dehumanization tool – neutralizes and silences the call-out of injustice.” We’ve begun to shine some light on patriarchal norms, including this tendency to minimize, but they are still with us. This influences both men’s and women’s behavior and can only be ameliorated with the dedication of both men and women.

More importantly, this harms both women and men, though in this matter, it might be clearer to think of those who are vulnerable and those with power. Psychotherapist Kathleen Rea reminds us that “the epidemic of men’s mental health concerns cannot be separated from the predominance of rape culture in our society — they are two sides of the same issue.” Rapid-fire, one-size-fits-all responses lack the nuance that the various stories in the #MeToo movement call for.

Senator Capito and Sarah Kenny at the Women's Global Leadership Forum
Photo credit: Dan Addison

I return again to Sen. Capito’s insight: “Humility and an open mind are a powerful tandem.” On February 20, the Women’s Center is sponsoring a panel discussion on the particular issues that the #MeToo movement raises in university settings. I invite us all to commit to a sincere effort to listen with an open mind and to consider the nuances and complexities involved.

I’d like to give the Senator from West Virginia the last word (for this post, at least): “My bottom line is you’ve got to listen not just to the people that you agree with, but to the ones you don’t.”

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