Shut up and listen!” – a slogan worth repeating?


 Right now there’s a bit of drama going on related to a recent conference. I don’t really want to discuss that here, since it seems everything that could be said about it has been said. Nevertheless, a tangential but slightly interesting issue has arisen out of the wreckage; namely that ‘privileged’ people should “shut up and listen”.

This slogan has been around for some time, often being the elephant in the room when people discuss certain ideas relating to ‘social justice’. I suspect that its original meaning was the worthwhile principle that one should listen to minorities, and not ignore or talk over them. Now it tends to mean that the minorities have the experience (qua oppressed people), so they’re the experts and authorities on that particular issue. I doubt that this is always true. To discover this, let’s think about the slogan a little more deeply.

Say a ‘privileged’ person (PP) is talking about the value of free expression, defending it against hate speech laws. A member of a minority (MM) tries to tell them their experience with ‘hate speech’ and PP doesn’t listen – they just preach the Good News about free expression. MM (or an onlooker) would perhaps be just in telling PP to “shut up and listen”, since they have something to contribute to the discussion and PP isn’t listening.

Now reverse the roles. MM is preaching the Bad News about hate speech, and why we ought to punish people for doing it. PP tries to offer some arguments defending free expression in spite of such an experience but MM keeps talking over them, telling them how hurtful it is when they encounter hate speech. It seems to me that if the discussion is going to be a learning experience, both parties need to listen to each other (from here on I’m ditching the ‘shut up’ part, since it’s impolite, redundant and seems designed only to get people’s backs up).

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