According to Stephen Covey, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Once, this was true. People were able to pay enough attention to formulate a response in interactions with others, which usually occurred live, often among humans who were familiar with each other. This was before. Before the onslaught of 24/7 access to information, vetted, fact-checked or otherwise. Before digital networks that are on pace to outstrip our own neuronal ones. Before the world really did become a stage – one for every human with an internet connection and the social-media account of their choosing. Before the second-by-second, unrelenting ochre whiz clinging vestigially to its anachronistic name of “the news.” Before what David Foster Wallace calls “Total Noise” in his introduction to The Best American Essays of 2007, people’s efforts to engage in the stuff right in front of them known as life was supported by the environment said people lived, moved and had their being in. In that rapidly receding time, implicit in the exchange of thoughts between conversants was at least some understanding of what you were replying to.
Covey seems to imply that replying is not as ideal, not as preferred, as understanding. It’s wise, of course, to understand before replying. Because people sometimes misunderstand each other, whether due to word associations formed in distant childhood, how that particular day is going so far or the structural limitations and distortions of language itself, the only way you can know if you’ve understood is by reflecting back what you believe you’ve understood – in other words, replying. Otherwise, you’re left to assume.
But instructions on active listening are attempting to correct a problem that no longer exists. It used to be the unfortunate default to assume you understood something or someone without checking yourself. No more. In the Age of the Echo Chamber, is anyone really listening anymore at all?
In the fraught culture of Total Noise, which has only magnified in the last decade since Wallace named it, I think most people don’t listen with the intent to understand or reply. I think most people either listen with the intent to defend themselves or don’t feel the need to listen at all. In the land of ‘the right to your own opinion’, there is no need to listen. There is no need to listen when you can adjust the settings of everything around you to “agreement.” There is no need to listen when truth, when reality, when facts are as personalisable as a digital profile. There is no need to listen when you have been given permission, indeed the mandate, to focus ever more on your own identity, your own personal oppression, at the expense of any other, especially another unlike you, and even at the expense of systemic oppression.
To be fair, attempting to listen in an environment that both produced compulsory trigger warnings and saddles victims with impossible requirements to prove sexual assault, is confusing. It’s easy to get disoriented and think, for example, that people who see the flaws in identity politics are privileged beyond subjugation and don’t care about justice rather than concerned about the division it’s wreaking and the damage it’s not fixing. Considering the toxicity of this in conjunction with our vicious individualism, where we expect humans to meet all of their basic needs – including that of belonging and connection with others – and our increasingly deregulated, capitalistic (read: cutthroat) economy, the old pastime of listening is having a rough go of it. Everyone needs a good listening to.