Think of an event like Think!Fest and you’d imagine a calm space where opinions are expressed by worthy, well-respected thinkers and then reacted to rationally and productively by audience members.
Last year’s festival was anything but calm though. “Heated”, “fractious” and “angry’ are some of the words Think!fest convenor Anthea Garman uses to describe the tenor of some of the 2016 discussions, several of which centred on student protests. At one of the debates, a student activist told another panel member, “I do not think you have the right to speak. You will not speak.”
How do we forge social bonds and mutual understanding in South Africa, when our attempts at “dialogue” are often little more than self-contained, successive monologues? Are there moments when speaking is not helpful?
The answer, according to Garman, is not to speak more politely, or argue more logically.
Garman’s talk, “Listening, the Neglected Part of Dialogue and Debate”, held on Friday morning, aimed to reframe not only the discussions held at events such as Think!Fest, but also to rethink the rules of engagement for public discourse in South Africa more broadly.
Using an eclectic mix of examples from contemporary South African media spaces and theory old and new, from Aristotle to Bickford via Foucault, Garman argued for a radical rethinking of the very premise of “civil” discourse.
As new voices enter the public sphere, they both challenge the power of established speakers and reconfigure the very nature of debate. Garman provides the example of a first-year Rhodes University student and activist, Mishka Wazar, who was invited by veteran Radio 702 host John Robbie to discuss the hair controversy at her former school, Pretoria Girls. While Robbie rehearsed the tired old line about the importance of disciplinary standards such as school uniform regulations, Wazar challenged Robbie’s right to express any opinion about young black women’s hair. Not only did this incident open up questions about who can speak and who should listen when it comes to issues surrounding bodies that are not your own, but it provided an example of interactions that are not dialogues at all – Garman suggested that Wazar was treating Robbie as a “hostile witness” rather than an interlocutor.
Futhermore, radio “debates” such as this one are perhaps doomed to fail as dialogues from the start, since media frequently draw on activist voices to present a very specific, often extreme view to which the host can counter with their “rational” opinion. In this encounter, Garman suggested, Wazar was already being treated as a “what” , a young student activist of colour, before she even entered the room, whereas Robbie was a “who”- a well-known media personality.
Although these questions of privilege, power and even exoticisation and sensationalism are important when we consider who can speak and who should (or doesn’t) listen, Garman advocates listening in a broader sense.
She asks: Why is speaking privileged but listening is not? There’s an audible murmur of consent throughout the room – I see some heads nodding. But that’s the point – the kind of attentive listening much of this audience is doing (which is confirmed by some of the probing questions listeners ask at the end of the talk), is tricky to quantify. Speech, however, is able to be recorded – audibly, as this talk is, verbatim in the form of a transcript, or in paraphrases, such as this article. The ephemeral nature of listening, makes it difficult to protect.
Between hearing, judging and speaking, Garman suggests, there has to be a space to imagine responses and experiences beyond the intellectual – an almost spiritual level of attunement.
If this seems utopian, I imagine Garman would agree, but she suggests that aspiring towards mutual listening is the only way we can move beyond the impasses that seem to result any time polarised speakers meet.
Garman’s talk addressed some of the tensions of last year’s debates effectively – although she acknowledges these fractures, these moments where communication breaks down, can also productively reveal fault-lines in society. And she sensitively set the tone for a series of talks and dialogues which will hopefully involve just as much careful listening as confident speaking.
By Andrea Thorpe