On Listening and the Black Lives Matter Movement

People hold up a Black Lives Matter banner as they march during a demonstration against racial inequality in Washington, D.C., June 14, 2020. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

What French philosopher Jean-Louis Chrétien would say about Critical Race Theory and the deficiencies of our political discourse.

In the aftermath of the Jacob Blake shooting and subsequent riots in Kenosha, Wis., we’ve once again been barraged with claims that America is an inherently racist nation. These claims take their cue from Critical Race Theory (CRT), a theoretical framework that interprets society and culture through the lens of race. CRT started in left-wing social-science departments, and has now been made mainstream by woke ideologues such as Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, who’ve rebranded it as “anti-racism.” It can seem a daunting task to dissect and rebut this ascendant intellectual fad. To do so, you must seek out voices of reason, and one voice I keep coming back to is Jean-Louis Chrétien.

Chrétien, a French philosopher and devout Catholic, was a phenomenologist interested in one’s personal encounter with God — particularly as experienced through speech. In a 2013 interview, Chrétien said that “the guiding theme of all of my writings has been a phenomenology of speech as the place where all meaning comes to light and is received.”

I bring up Chrétien and his focus on speech because we’re at a point in our socio-political climate where to even question the morality of rioting is off limits if you’re white (thanks to CRT). As a white college student post-George Floyd, I am told that the privilege of my white skin means I must remain quiet and allow for black voices to permeate the national dialogue. I am told my voice is not important, needed, or warranted. To even question a particular narrative is considered a form of violence, and thus, the only way forward is to turn off my conscience and let those higher up in the intersectional hierarchy lead.

Chrétien would call these demands a subversion of listening and speech. In his seminal work, The Ark of Speech, he spends a lot of time explaining what true listening actually is. First, he conceives of listening as a form of hospitality. A hospitable person lets another person speak, listening intently without interruption. If we interrupt or try to finish the speaker’s sentences for him, we deny him the being of his existence — namely, the opportunity to speak the truth about himself. As Chrétien writes, “We do not want to talk to those who know everything all too well, long in advance; we do not want to speak if others are going to finish our sentences for us; we do not start speaking to relinquish the ground of our being. . . . If listening understands too much . . . it tends to become vision, autopsy, a perspicacity that sees through me, instead of greeting me around the hearth of language.”

So, in dealing with cultural and political questions of race, Chrétien would say that is very important to listen to those who have experienced racism, and to listen to them honestly so as to be a true conversant. But he would not end there. An equally important facet of listening is participation. Listening is not true listening unless it actively participates in what’s been said. The interlocutor must be able to reciprocate and engage. As Chrétien says:

To bear with the other the burden and responsibility of his words can only happen if we ourselves bring our offering, the fresh air of our whispered meanings. To allow myself to be questioned by what he has to say means also having, myself, to question and interrogate him. . . . It is certain that [listening] must always be answerable to and for what is said to it.

Not only must the listener be attentive, he has a responsibility to question what’s been said to test its validity. Thus, listening is reciprocal. Any speech uttered requires a response from the listener. Chrétien would scoff at our current cultural dialogue, which places identitarian restrictions on who can or cannot engage. He would denounce such restrictions as subversions of one of the most fundamental, basic activities of humanity.

In a political climate seeking to dictate who can say what to whom, think about what Chrétien says about listening and speech. True listening requires you to allow the other person to speak the fullness of his being, without interrupting. But it is not true listening if there is no active participation. After allowing the other person to say his piece, you must engage with what he’s said, question its validity, and see if it aligns with reality. There can’t be identitarian prerequisites for such engagement. It is its own kind of moral relativism to assert that being white, privileged, or heteronormative should bar a person from participation in conversations about race or gender.

So, next time you go at it with your Critical Race Theory professor, remember Chrétien. The fundamental prerequisite to both listening and speech is the ability to reciprocate. Without it, neither can exist.