Languages of the Unheard

A new Body Politic writer shares about the difficulties he sees in learning to listen to forms of speech that leave him unsettled—riots and nationalism.

Martin Luther King Jr. said that riots are the language of the unheard. I think the same thing about supporting an authoritarian politician like Donald Trump: like a riot, it injures, in a single stroke, both yourself and others. And, like a riot, it comes from silent desperation to be heard. It is an expression of something that should not have been left unheard.

Two Stories

The problem with these desperate languages—beyond the obvious destruction—is that they tell only half a story, and we know from Proverbs that it is folly to answer a matter before hearing the whole. For a glimpse of the other half, let us look at two ordinary, American events:

Several weeks ago, someone fired ten shots in the street outside my window. I snapped off my light and huddled with my housemates for fear of a stray bullet. Meanwhile, out in the street, half a dozen police—men, women, black, and white—fanned out, exposed, into the neighborhood, knowing only that someone in a dark alleyway had a gun and was willing to use it. I cowered in my house, feeling electric with gratitude to these men and women and to their families for accepting such danger on my behalf.

Some months before that shooting, I walked into a salon for a haircut. The stylist had emigrated from Iran so I asked her how she likes living in America. She told me, “Some of it is good and some of it is hard.” She paused and looked into my face to see whether I would listen if she told her story. So I asked. And then I steeled myself for tales of Islamophobia and discrimination.

She chose to start with the good. “I like America,” she said, “because, in America, my children are my own.”

Then she continued: “In Iran, my friend married the man her family chose. She had a child. But then her husband left Iran to work and, because he did not come back, my friend, she ask to divorce. And the authorities, they give her a divorce, but they take the child because, in Iran, a child belong to the father. But, the boy, he got very sick because he had no mother.”

I nodded, which is not wise when a distracted person is cutting your hair. But she anticipated my nod with her clippers and continued.

“So they give the boy back to the mother,” she said. “Then, when the boy is seven, they take him and give him again to the father’s family.”

The stylist walked around front to look in my face.

“I have two children,” she said. “They are with me in America.”

She cut my hair while she talked. Then she recut it and recut it again. And I didn’t care.

“In Iran, I must wear a head covering,” she said, changing subjects, “but in America I can choose. When I come to America, I find a job to serve at a restaurant. They tell me I must wear the clothes worn by all people who work at that restaurant. And they tell me I must wear a hat. But I tell them I do not want to wear a hat. And they say, ‘Okay, you can not wear the hat.’”

Her face glowed at the wonder of this and she paused to nip around my ears with her clippers. When she snapped the clippers off again, I prompted her: “And what have you found difficult in America?” Again, I steeled myself for tales of discrimination.

“In America, I must work very hard,” she said. “Every day, I travel far for this job and I am tired. My father, in Iran, he work for the government. They say he should work five days in a week. They say he should stay in the office all day. But we live close to his office and he come home when he want to come home.”

I tipped like a millionaire and walked out of that salon with the breeze running cooler on my scalp than it had in many months. And I glowed with pride in my country for being a refuge to this woman and her children.

The Ethics of Listening

These two stories, repeated a thousand times each day in America, represent the quiet other half of what we hear about police abuse and the dangers of immigration. They are true and common, and they fill me with wonder at my country and my countrymen.

How, after seeing these things, should we listen to politicians who disparage the vulnerable, grateful immigrants among us? And, though I ache when my black friends tell me that their experience of the law cannot always be described as protection, should I still listen to them when they speak in the language of riots and wholesale accusations against even the good men and women who place themselves in danger to enforce good laws?

On one side are people who will not listen—people who say “I refuse to hear you when you speak in a language that does injury to good people.” And then there are the tepid apologists who insist that, even in the foulness, is a message that should be heard—a message that should have been heard before, when it was spoken more gently.

I am one of those apologists. I believe that a terrifying amount of truth has been placed off limits because we lacked the language to discuss it with grace. But, the truth, long suppressed, is now gushing out, sometimes covered in slime and toxic lies. And we continue to ignore it at our peril.

I have travelled enough to know that most places in the world are xenophobic to some degree—enough to know that, in most countries, the police are as likely to exploit people as to protect them. My travels have placed me on four different continents for our last four national elections and this experience drives me to treasure the extent to which America has done certain things right that are so easy to get wrong. That is why I am disturbed when the unheard voices in our country are driven to attack even what is best about us—the presence of law and our compulsive generosity toward people who are different.

When the authorities in a home, a school, a hospital, or a government are attacked by the people under their care, they can refuse to listen. And they can give morally upright reasons for their refusal: “I will not listen when you speak in a destructive language.” “An attack is not a conversation.”

But this does not answer the issue. It leaves urgent voices unheard and urgent truths unspoken. I believe the only right response in such cases is to say, “Use your words to tell me about yourself and I will listen.” The only answer is to cultivate honest voices and encourage them to speak. And, to do this, we cannot prescribe the direction a person must argue to be heard.

In 2014, The Atlantic lay on my end table with a cover article titled “The Case for Reparations.” I did not read it because I objected to discussing our racial challenges through the language of guilt payments for our ancestors’ sins. A few weeks later, someone recycled the magazine and replaced it with the next issue.

In the following months, Ferguson, Missouri and then my neighboring city of Baltimore erupted in violence over senseless police killings. I sat on my porch while my neighbor listened to the coverage in his house and then came out on the porch to mutter and shake his head. Only then did I call up the discarded Atlantic article on my iPhone and I read it from beginning to end. I am still not persuaded to agree with the article’s conclusion but I will say this: it contains many pages of careful journalism. It is a voice that should have been heard.

I am a white man, raised on a farm in middle America. I cannot give a voice to the people who rioted in Ferguson or Baltimore because I do not share the experiences that have made them desperate. But I should listen as carefully as I know how to listen.

And I should also speak for the anxieties that drive “people like me” to the horrendous expressions of politicians who demean whole segments of our nation: Muslims, Hispanics, immigrants, secularists, the media, public servants, academic elites . . .

Another Story

In my fiction I have tried to do this—to express a portion of the alienated male experience that I understand. And, yes, it is a cry to be heard—an effort to “use your words” as a way of displacing the ugly languages that have cropped up in such abundance this election season. It is an effort to speak a small portion of that terrifying amount of truth that was placed off limits because we lacked the language to discuss it with grace. It is based on the conviction that, if more people are heard, fewer will speak in the desperate languages of the unheard. Please read and answer in kind.

Original photo by Mstyslav Chernov. used under CC3.0

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