What It Is Like To No Be Listened To
I am very fortunate. I am a white male, with a professional degree, living in the United States of America. As a result, I tend to be listened to. It is unjust that my whiteness and maleness and professional degree-ness makes me listened to when others without those qualities would be ignored, but that's the way it is. And I'm not going to pretend that I don't take advantage of this fact, and enjoy the fact that people listen to me.
In fact, there is really only one trait I have that causes me not to be listened to--I'm short. I'm 5'5", which is well below average for a man in the U.S. There are times--not often, but they happen--where my height causes me to be ignored or dismissed. I try very hard to put on a good face when this happens, because I don't want to fall into the stereotype of the belligerent, Napoleon-complex dude. But I can tell you without hesitation--the experience of being ignored for being short sucks. Really sucks.
In a previous post, I intimated by frustrations with the preparatory document that the Vatican put out for the upcoming Synod on the Family. Other than an acknowledgement that the sex abuse crisis makes it harder for people to take seriously what the Church has to say about sex and family (the most modest of modest concessions, but, hey, it's something), it is simply a restatement of all the stuff we have been hearing for the last 40 years. I had some hopes that the tentative moves made toward soliciting the feedback of the laity would result in, you know, actually listening to what the laity think about stuff. Alas, as I feared, the surveys appear to have been used to identify those topics about which they are going to yell at us with more consistency and more volume.
Bill Lindsey, at his excellent Bilgrimage blog, sums up my reaction far better than I could with an analogy:
Suppose you are, God forbid, in a difficult spot with your spouse of many years, and you both agree to resort to couples counseling to try to sort out your problems. You're convinced that he doesn't listen. He's certain that he's a very skilled listener. This presents a serious problem for both of you, this breakdown in communication, with the obstinate certainty of one of you that he listens and listens well, and your strong sense that you're, in fact, not really being heard at all.
You go to your counselor for your initial session. You talk, your spouse talks. You listen, he listens.
You feel relief at having spilled out your anguish, your frustrations, your hopes and your fears. You've shared out of your depths.
You return for your next session. As you sit down with the counselor, your spouse smiles broadly, produces a lengthy document with a big flourish, and says, "You see. I do listen. Here's what you said in the first session."
And then he proceeds to read his obsessive laundry list of every word you uttered — a list that totally misses the entire point of the previous session, in which you had thought that heart spoke to heart, as you poured your heart out to your spouse with the counselor facilitating the process.
Your spouse heard. He heard the words you spoke.
But he failed completely to hear: he failed to hear the words beneath the words. He did so because, at some level, he's adamantly convinced that he already knows, that he listens carefully, loves well, and really doesn't need these pesky intervention sessions, which only distract from his real task of taking good care of you and helping instruct you in the proper way to live (which is to say, his way).
That is precisely the problem with the preparatory document, and precisely the problem with the entire approach of the Church to the broad basket of issues grouped together under the awkward heading of "the Family." "Listening" is defined at absorbing the information presented and then spitting back a set of action items or talking points about what you need to do. "I know you think this (*pat on the head*), but I know what you really meant, or what you would mean if you really understood what was going on, so I'm going to do you the favor of translating what you said into something completely different."
That's not listening. That's condescending, know-it-all, superior BS. The message communicated is that lay people (who, by the way, are the folks who are actually running families!) are morons whose ideas are only useful as a foil for the next round of talking points. This kind of thing demonstrates contempt for the laity on the part of the institutional church. Lindsey highlights a small but telling example of this contempt--the repeated references to "those people" or "these people." Not "members of the Church," not "Catholics," not "Christians". . . "those people."
The problem is that I fear real listening on the part of the Church is impossible. I had a conversation with a conservative Catholic commentator over email recently. I brought up this issue of listening, and he was dismissive. "What are they not listening to?" he demanded. "What would you define as listening? I mean, other than capitulation?"
If the starting point of the conversation is that adopting one position (i.e. the one that is not yours) is "capitulation," then you have already foreclosed the possibility of conversation. You might as well not have the conversation. But if the institutional reputation is staked on certain conclusions about "family" issues, then any changes do come across as "capitulation." I mean, we can't have anyone thinking the Anglicans were right about anything, now can we? If the choice is between being seen as condescending jerks and being seen as wrong about something, the choice is not really a choice for a certain type of Catholic, particularly in the hierarchy. Just like the person Lindsey's analogy, these folks are willing to humor the rest of us by listening to our gripes, just so long as they don't have to do anything that would call their ontological correctness into question. Because that would be capitulation.
I said there was only one trait that causes me to not be listened to. That's not true--there is actually a second trait, and that is the fact that I am part of the unwashed masses of "those people." Because of it, the opinions and thoughts and experiences that I have are dismissed out-of-hand. And, truthfully, I don't think this is ever going to change.
How does that feel? It sucks.