Right now there’s a bit of drama going on related to a recent conference. I don’t really want to discuss that here, since it seems everything that could be said about it has been said. Nevertheless, a tangential but slightly interesting issue has arisen out of the wreckage; namely that ‘privileged’ people should “shut up and listen”.
This slogan has been around for some time, often being the elephant in the room when people discuss certain ideas relating to ‘social justice’. I suspect that its original meaning was the worthwhile principle that one should listen to minorities, and not ignore or talk over them. Now it tends to mean that the minorities have the experience (qua oppressed people), so they’re the experts and authorities on that particular issue. I doubt that this is always true. To discover this, let’s think about the slogan a little more deeply.
Say a ‘privileged’ person (PP) is talking about the value of free expression, defending it against hate speech laws. A member of a minority (MM) tries to tell them their experience with ‘hate speech’ and PP doesn’t listen – they just preach the Good News about free expression. MM (or an onlooker) would perhaps be just in telling PP to “shut up and listen”, since they have something to contribute to the discussion and PP isn’t listening.
Now reverse the roles. MM is preaching the Bad News about hate speech, and why we ought to punish people for doing it. PP tries to offer some arguments defending free expression in spite of such an experience but MM keeps talking over them, telling them how hurtful it is when they encounter hate speech. It seems to me that if the discussion is going to be a learning experience, both parties need to listen to each other (from here on I’m ditching the ‘shut up’ part, since it’s impolite, redundant and seems designed only to get people’s backs up).
A possible objection that perhaps arises here is that MM doesn’t need to listen to PP (or at least, not as much) because MM knows more about the subject than PP does, since PP doesn’t know what it’s like to experience hate speech. However, I have two responses to this.
The first is that while MM’s experience might be relevant, it doesn’t necessarily cause PP’s whole argument to be false, if it indeed has any impact on it at all. For instance, my arguments against hate speech laws accept that hate speech laws cause great hurt and distress to minorities. You need an additional argument to go from ‘I experience great distress from hate speech’ to ‘we should have laws prohibiting hate speech’. No amount of shutting up and listening will get me to change my position on this issue, unless they provide me with a convincing argument. Part of doing that involves listening to my arguments and objections, so that their own responses are as robust as possible (i.e. they have fully understood and addressed my arguments/objections). Listening has to go both ways, or there’s no point to having a conversation in the first place.
The second is that although MM may have had relevant experiences that PP hasn’t had, it doesn’t necessarily make them an authority on that issue, unless the issue at hand is wholly about their experience. So MM is an authority on the question ‘did hate speech H upset MM?’, but not ‘should we legislate against hate speech?’. Furthermore, as skeptics and freethinkers we recognise that while a person may be an authority on a given issue, their statements and arguments might not be. I could have a conversation with Michael Behe (who knows more about biochemistry than I do) about evolution. Should I trust his expertise and adopt the beliefs he holds? No, I shouldn’t. I’m skeptical of the beliefs of authorities, just as much as I’m skeptical about anything else. Should I listen to Behe? Sure – insofar as we’ve accepted that both participants in a discussion ought to listen to one another.
We might defer to authority on some occasions – I don’t really know much about climate change but I defer to the experts who do, and thus believe that man-made climate change is a very real problem. This sort of deference, though, is a time-saving mechanism. We do so only because we have limited time and resources to get acquainted with a given subject. If we have our own arguments, and our own position, then the best way of verifying that position is to test it against objections – not simply see if an authority agrees and adjust our beliefs so they are in synchronisation with theirs.
There are other questions worth asking about the slogan ‘shut up and listen’. What do we do if we disagree with the person we’re listening to? What if we listen to two MMs only to find that they disagree with each other, or hold mutually contradictory views? Is ‘shut up and listen’ meant to imply that the person being told that isn’t listening? How can one be so sure?
Comments are welcome. Please keep to the subject of the post – this isn’t about Women in Secularism, Ron Lindsay or Rebecca Watson. It’s about the meaning and the value of “shut up and listen”.