Listening obliquely: Listening as norm and strategy for structural justice

Contemporary Political Theory 20 (1):23-47 (2021)
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Abstract

Long histories and entrenched habits of inattention among advantaged groups mean that even minor challenge and concession can provoke subjective perceptions of victimization. How, in such conditions, might claims of structural injustice break through? Drawing on field work with practitioners across conflict mediation, therapy, education, and performance – four sectors that facilitate listening in fraught contexts yet are undertheorized in politics – this article makes the case that among the most overlooked and powerful resources for cultivating receptivity and responsiveness among advantaged groups are the arts of listening. Practices of engagement across these sectors establish listening as potent rather than passive, given the extent to which it constitutes the field of encounter and shapes what emerges within it, both in terms of expression and, more significantly in this context, receptivity of those to whom one listens. Yet this also means that how one listens is a pivotal consideration – particularly when listening might serve to reinforce and normalize unjustly dominant positions. In contrast to progressive politics’ emphasis on finding more forceful forms of voice and conventional reliance on direct communicative practices, this article explores how specific comedic, theatrical, and embodied tactics can generate ‘oblique forms of listening’ potentially useful to social justice struggles.

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