Bobby – Lessons in Listening

In the concentration camp where philosopher Emmanual Levinas was shut away, there was a dog named Bobby. Levinas described Bobby as “the last Kantian in Nazi Germany, without the brain needed to universalize maxims and drives”. His reason? Every morning and every evening, as the prisoners walked through the camp gate on their way too and from their labours, Bobby, jumping and barking in delight, would greet them all the same.

Symbolically, the dog is the best friend to humankind, but also our eternal, loyal servant. To be treated like a dog is not a good thing. To be called a dog is one of humankind’s greatest insults. Mangy, downtrodden, tail between the legs. The epitome of ferocious subservience, conditioned as much with a booted foot as with a gentle hand. The dog’s place will always be below that of a human being, no matter how much dog lovers wish to believe otherwise. That is, until we also learn to see each other eye-to-eye on the same level. The dog will find its place when we stop treating each other like dogs.

The symbolic is so strong that it is almost literal. By its mere form, we know the dog’s relation to us. It is born into a position from which it cannot escape, and cherished, feared, or despised, the dog will always instil a feeling of pitiful lowliness in its human masters. What of other humans? If the dog symbolises the conquest of nature by humans, what of the conquest of humans by humans? For millennia the patriarchy has treated women like dogs. Women were the first conquest, the first to be enslaved, when mankind overthrew humankind. The conquest has been so totallizing and absolute that, for many, men and women alike, it is impossible to look at a woman and not see her as the creature man has shaped her to be. This irrespective of whether she has been shaped or not, wether she has retained her agency or not, whether she played a role in her enslavement or not. Like all good systems of oppression, the patriarchy is so deeply entrenched in our human socializing, in our individual mindsets, that we deem most of it as inevitable, as being part in parcel with our human nature. Just look at the physical differences between us! Man is big, strong, intelligent. Woman is small, frail, emotional. It’s just so obvious.

Who was the next to be enslaved? The youth to the old, who know that they are vulnerable, and so select a few strong, healthy, brave, young men to protect them and do their bidding? The rich to the poor? That religion played a role, hoisting those who have so much, through myth, to a position of deserving it, seems too obvious. Likely it was the conquest of our neighbours. By the very nature of their being outsiders, we know that they are lesser than us. Everyone has a healthy skepticism towards that which is not familiar to them. All of these things and more could have happened simultaneously. Some societies trying it this way, others another, each tribe and clan a social experiment to the effectiveness of the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few. Casting aside those unfortunate enough to have disadvantages that cannot be converted into servitude, hierarchy became synonymous with order. The efficiency of knowing one’s place became the driving force of all human endeavours. Let the strong thrive by virtue of their strength, let the weak serve by virtue of their not being strong enough to do otherwise.

Levinas writes of the dogs of Exodus (22:31): “You shall be men consecrated to me; therefore you shall not eat any flesh that is torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs”. The dog is given a certain birth right. It may eat that which is forbidden to us, thus saving us from our weak stomachs. Were men fallen in battle also to be given over to the dogs? They were, if their flesh was not deemed human enough. So the dog, far from being our guide into the afterlife, became the diner at our last supper. In a way the dog returned us to nature, for even those men who saw themselves above all others must have seen a dangerous similarity between their flesh and that meat rendered on the field as dog chow.

What of Pavlov? His discovery of conditioning, which has been essential to our understanding of our animal brains, was entirely an accident. With tubes siphoning directly through holes in the dogs’ stomachs, Pavlov sought to collect his mongrels’ gastric juices, in order to be sold for some medicinal purpose. Thus capitalism transformed our best friend into little more than a fruit tree, an exotic juicer. But we as human beings have been conditioned more to gag at the idea of dog juice than at the idea of a dog being farmed in such a way. And why not? We farm other animals in much worse ways. And we have done to humans far worse than we have ever done to any animal. I can guarantee it.

Why? Because even strapped in a chair, bleeding from multiple wounds, we recognise the sameness in the other. And that is a scary notion. To think that, by some unlucky turn of events, I could have been born poor, doomed to eternal malnourishment, to die, forgotten, from intense, dehumanising labour. It’s a sobering thought. But by some other turn of events I could have been rich. Have my money made through the work of others. Believe that women should be entirely subservient to men. That black people are animals. That gays should be executed for their transgressions. And I would be rewarded for these beliefs and honoured when I die. And later on people would do everything in their power to insist that I wasn’t so bad, or that my antihuman sentiment was merely an artefact of the times. Which would you rather be?

Because we love to believe that we would not be like them. If we were born into a Nazi household, we would somehow overcome our family’s prejudices and do the right thing. If we were born into nobility, we alone would use our power and wealth for the good. If we were born into a slaveowner estate, we would be the only ones to treat our slaves as equals. But what if we were born right now? What would we do with our lives? To some extent we have to be able to contemplate evil in order to arrive at the good, and to that we have to admit the possibility of evil in ourselves. After all, all evil has been done in the name of doing the right thing. It is right to follow orders. It is right to have order. How the word “order” is used, it is simultaneously an imperative and a way of life. A hierarchy whose command is to fall into line, to fit in.

Another tale is most telling of the entrenchment of hierarchy. Lucifer, Satan, the fallen angel, was cast down because he beseeched god to share his power. If you would have it the way that Christians tell it, Lucifer sought to take power unto himself, and thus become Lord without changing the natural order of things. Even if we take this interpretation, the story speaks to a much greater evil than an uppity, angsty angel. For Lucifer was rewarded with the dominion of Hell, and say what you will about the place, it’s full of interesting people. Power rewards those who have it, which is why the story is told in a way so as to empower the all powerful.

But viewed from a different lens, is this heavenly “natural order” not the greatest evil to beset humankind? Speaking from the experience of the human condition, if we have a god, and he is all powerful, then he is surely evil incarnate. There is no greater source of human suffering than the notion that the way things are is the way things ought to be. And god, as the lord of all things, must therefore be the lord of suffering. He is the devil, and his heavenly order is our earthly Hell.

Anarchy seeks to destroy this order. No wonder, then, anarchy has become synonymous with chaos. But the anarchist sees the infinite depth behind people’s eyes. They know that they cannot know. That to put a person in their place is to remove not only their agency but even the capacity to see things another way. There are too many of us, and we are too different in too many ways, for one person to have the right to decide over the life of another. But I am not here to talk about anarchy.

I am here to talk about a conversation I had with a friend. We work together politically, and we see eye-to-eye on many levels. Yet every conversation with this friend feels like a powerful judgment. A courtroom in which my every word is to be examined and deemed true of false. What I say does not seem to matter much if my actions do not live up to his standards, and every sentences feels stripped of its meaning and put into a context where it does not belong. In short, I feel my friend has not learned to listen, merely listen, and to withhold judgment. If it were merely about questioning how I view the world, then the conversation would have been a welcome respite for the egocentricity of thinking. To learn from each other through conversation is the only way to truly learn about another person. But in order to learn you have to listen, and simply accept what the other is saying as their version of the truth.

This is a tendency I witness among many people. They are so caught up in how they perceive others that they cannot truly listen. Which is why people so often talk past each other. I hear the same conversations time and again, because no one seems willing to take the other at their word. Their own judgments become the only truth they believe, and everything the other says and does is overshadowed by perception. For lack of a space in which to express oneself, people are condemned to living the lives that others lay out before them, all to the tune of self-justificatory judgment.

The point of all of this? Even if we do not condemn humankind to being evil by nature, we have to admit of some latent evil that we all possess. Namely, we are all predisposed to jump to conclusions before hearing a person out. Even to our friends, a mere difference in the way we live our lives is already evidence in our eyes that the other is wrong, or what they are saying cannot be fully trusted. Evolutionarily speaking this trait has likely served us well, but morally speaking it is the origin of all falsehood.

When was the last time you listened to someone without thinking of what you yourself are going to say? Just as two people cannot talk at the same time and wish to be heard, these are two processes that must take turns. To actively hear someone out and weigh their perspective from their position is at least as important as being heard, and we should cherish the view of the other as complementing our own, not competing with it. What use is a voice if there is no ear to hear it? What use is it to talk to another if not to learn from them? The lesson that Bobby teaches us is that we are all deserving of equal treatment.

Oppression began with the silencing of the other. Perhaps that is why we conquered nature before we conquered humankind, for nature doesn’t speak. When we relegated women to a second class position, the role came with a million reasons why women don’t know any better, why their opinion doesn’t matter, why whatever they have to say is mere bitching and moaning. A loud voice and a big stick allowed man to continue his infancy in perpetuity. Meanwhile, all around him, others have to go about the business of self-sacrifice. The male voice has always been more important than a woman’s, so female politicians teach themselves to deepen their tone, for the high voice of a woman has become a thing of mockery or evil. So entrenched in our is the notion of the primacy of the male, that men complain about women talking too much whenever they talk at all. That goes for all people who have not learned to listen; every utterance of the other becomes an unbearable nuisance.

Or… let us not go so far. Surely many of us go through great pains to listen to others. But millennia have shaped our social relations to put some voices above others, to deem some worth listening to, and others not. We deem people to be telling the truth when their words somehow match their actions – but that is not how truth works. What is true is true irrespective of who says it, regardless of where their lives have brought them, independent of the judgements we have in store for them. Such a notion can only be self-serving; if I can dismiss the words of another, then I am not bound to heed their call for equal treatment, and yet I can convince myself that I am treating them equally – for who is in a position to tell me otherwise? If we do not actively listen, we cannot hear the call of the other, the moral imperative that is reborn with every new utterance. Without a voice, there is no one to question the natural order of things, and so if I find myself in a position above others, there is no one to say that that position is not right. More subtly, I can place a person on a level equal to my own and still dismiss what they have to say. It is entirely up to them to be and act in accordance to my own standards. Then they will become worth listening to.

Every person must be heard in their own rite. In the gaps between sentences we cannot assume to know what they are going to say. This goes beyond prejudice, prejudging. For to judge at all is to assume a position of knowing better than the other. To actively listen to one another, and develop the capacity to understand the other for who they are, is the foundation of morality and democracy. All else is for the dogs.

Mainstream Idea

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