I struggle to genuinely listen to people who say things that either piss me off or that I deeply disagree with, especially when I experience it as a personal attack. At the same time I have spent the past 40 years working on how to listen in order to understand the other. I have accomplished a lot, but feel like Sisyphus a lot of times. To make things more complicated I am writing a book about democracy in which listening to understand the other is one of the main themes. At the same time, going from the frying pan to the fire, I am immersed in very polarized situation. Holding to a value and ideal can be very challenging when on the front line of walking my talk.
I was really touched by some words of Cornel West while researching his writings. He spoke during an interview with George Yancy in the latter’s 1998 book From African American Philosophers: 17 Conversations, pages 32-48.
Yancy asked: “Do you see the category of race as the dominating discourse in the United States?”
West: Oh, absolutely. Whenever you have a civilization that is shaped by 244 years of chattel slavery, enslavement of African people, and 81 years of Jim Crow, minstrels as the first national pastime, jazz as its highest art form, you can't claim that race has not been a fundamental construct that has shaped how we've gone about making sense of the world. And as constructed as the concept of race is, its effects and consequences through culture have been immense and will continue to be immense far into the twenty-first century."
After some discussion of class and other matters Yancy returned to race with a challenging question:
“Continuing with this issue of racism...how do you convince, let's say, a KKK member that his or her respective.”
It’s here that West words impressed me deeply:
"I think your question is...a good one…it would have to do with context, it would have to do with the language of the Ku Klux Klan member to whom I was speaking. When you want to constitute a dialogue with the KKK or whomever, you have got to be able to communicate with them. First, what sort of narratives are they using? Second, how do you engage in immanent critiques of their narratives to get them to see that they're actually involved in a deep contradiction or a major blindness by downplaying certain elements of those narratives and highlighting other elements of those narratives?"
"Hence, how then do you muster resources based on the tradition out of which they come, that serves as the basis for criticizing the white supremacy to which they are captive? It's a question of how you weave narratives and how you reweave them in such a way that a person would be open to a critique of white supremacy.
Quite a commitment to dialogue!
He went on:
Now that's just the intellectual level. Then you've got the matter of certain interests. For example, why is it that they're so invested in white supremacy? What are the wages of whiteness that they accrue, given the investment? And that becomes psychocultural and psychosexual and all of these different dimensions: the intellectual, the argument in relation to self-interest, the psychocultural and psychosexual anxieties associated with black bodies or brown bodies or red bodies. All of these elements must go into the conversation if you're trying to convince and persuade a person that he or she is wrong…But even after all of this, of course, one may still be unsuccessful."
A radical willingness to fail.
Later Yancy asked West how he sees Louis Farrakan:
I approached him as I approach anybody, which is first an act of charity, to see in fact what openness, what positive elements are part of his view where I can resonate with him, and then of course to highlight the negative and highly objectionable ones.
A hard act to follow.