Most People Never Listen

In my last blog, I considered the importance of artists continuing to speak up in troubling times. I also touched upon the importance of listening, and that was something I was reminded of as I finished reading Things That Can and Cannot Be Said, the brilliant book by John Cusack and Arundhati Roy, an account of the meeting of activists Roy, Cusack, NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden and Pentagon Papers insider Daniel Ellsberg. It is a fascinating, if somewhat frightening, read, a book so dense and brilliant that I immediately want to go back to the start and read it again.

I have long admired Roy for her literary brilliance and insightful political analyses, but in this book, I was equally struck by Cusack, not least because he listens to the people around him. I am aware that this should be the default, that we shouldn’t just give praise that one privileged white man has learned to sit back and listen to others but it is an increasingly rare and highly underrated trait and it’s important to us all both as political and artistic thinkers. We need to learn to listen more, and to broaden the scope of what we’re listening to.

When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.
— Ernest Hemingway

I think many of us are chilled by the out-and-out racism on display in America and at home in the UK at the moment, but what makes it worse is that people of colour have been telling us, repeatedly, that it was happening and we didn’t listen. LGBTQ people told us they were fearful of the prejudice they continued to face and we didn’t listen. Similarly, women are told there is no glass ceiling; it is slowly and patiently explained to us that there is no misogyny even as we present hard facts on the wage gap and a sexual predator wins the White House with plans to dismantle a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. Shush, ladies, less of your hysteria, the grown ups in charge are talking now.

We must learn to listen better and to broaden the scope of the voices we listen to. This includes supporting artists of colour and other silenced and dismissed minorities such as the disabled or LGBTQ people, it means taking in culture from all over the world, it includes reading at least twice, three times as much as we write and stepping outside of our usual boundaries of tastes and favourites.

I don’t even really present this as a moral duty – the rewards are phenomenal, it adds a diverse symphony to your own education as an artist, it brings colour, magic and insight from across the world. In short, it will make your life richer and your art better. I’ll give just one example from hundreds I could have chosen. The poem Dinosaurs in the Hood by Danez Smith haunts me; it’s not just the message it conveys but the way the poem conveys it. The work reverberates with energy and yet the form and structure of this work is both delicate and astounding; it works as a masterclass on the power of repetition on a par with Lear’s “never, never, never, never, never” line in Shakespeare’s play; it made me see and feel something new both about another’s experience and about how I write.

Actually, given that I acknowledge part of Cusack’s brilliance and his significant contribution to the book Things That Can and Cannot be Said, I should shut up and let you listen to Danez Smith.