The Value of Listening

September 23, 2016

The beginning of another academic year brings renewed debates over the nature and value of free speech on college campuses. The Dean of Students at the University of Chicago welcomed new students with a reminder that the school’s commitment to academic freedom precludes so-called ‘trigger warnings’ or ‘safe spaces.’ Opinion pieces in the New York Times and Time Magazine pushed back, arguing that free expression is compatible with such measures (and may even, in some cases, require it).

With so much emphasis on protecting the right to speak as intrinsic to a college education, we may forget that speech is only half of any communicative act. For speech to have any educative effect, it must also be heard. Listening is as integral to students’ learning as speech. Moreover, like speaking, listening occurs in a specific social context and aspects of that context can directly affect whether and how we hear those around us. For example, studies have shown that we tend to grant less credibility to the statements of those who come from socially disadvantaged groups, about whom we might hold conscious or unconscious prejudices. Miranda Fricker, a philosopher at the City University of New York Graduate Center, terms this phenomenon “testimonial injustice” and argues that it can affect individuals in a wide variety of circumstances. To cite just one startling example, a recent study found that black patients are significantly less likely than whites to receive opioid prescriptions when they visit emergency departments with complaints that are often associated with drug seeking behavior (e.g. back or abdominal pain). This is despite the fact that studies have also shown that prescription opioid abuse is more prevalent among whites than blacks.

So, what lesson should we at Stonehill draw from all of this? Maybe something as simple as this: while we continue to hash out the particulars of how we, as a campus community, will address issues of free speech – how we will foster an environment in which students are free to speak their minds openly – we might also consider how to create a space in which they can listen, freely and openly as well.