Response by Prof Stephen Coleman on the public lecture The Lost Art of Listening: The Missing Key to Democratic and Civil Society Participation by Prof Jim Macnamara

Thank you Jim.

I listened, with growing admiration… great project. We want more of it.

Your subject could not be more politically timely, for we’re living through what increasingly feels like an insurgency of the unheard.

For most of my lifetime, it’s been complacently assumed that the unheard would simply fade away, that’s not always the verb that was used, into solemn silence, interrupted by occasional bouts of vulgar peak and localised self arm. Leave them alone, exclude them from polling models, because they won’t vote. Humour their audacious resentments. And tell them what’s best for them, from how to bring up their kids, to how to speak.

Perhaps pay occasional rhetorical service to the value of listening to them, failing ever to acknowledge unbridgeable chasm between simulated attention and sensitive comprehension.

But the attention economy, like every other aspect of the global economic order, is profoundly unequal. It’s structurally unequal. Who listens to whom, on whose terms and with what consequence, are socially determined and deeply ingrained.

Codes of recognition depend upon the regular misrecognition of certain voices. Inattention is not a random act of disrespect,  but it is deeply embedded within a system of political representation which regards democracy as a politically bounded notion, relating to the election and accountability of responsible representatives, but not to the terms of cultural worth.

Political democracy, as we have come to experience it in the West, is characterised by a parsimonious code that values all voices equally for one brief plebiscitary moment every few years and the rest of the time accommodates itself to the cultural hierarchies and inequalities which are self-replicating, underpinning a deeply undemocratic social order.

When Walter Burjor, the most prominent English theorist of the English constitution wrote of the newly enfranchised male public in the 1860s that, I quote, “Notwithstanding their numbers, they must always be subject, always, at least, be comparatively uninfluential, whatever their capacity may be, it must be less than that of a higher classes whose occupations are for more instructive, and whose education is more prolonged.” He was articulating an orthodoxy that was to define and degrade the liberal democratic project for the next century and a half.

At the heart of this skewed political perspective is a characterisation of the non-elite as “the masses.” Those people whose presence must be acknowledged but rarely respected. “The masses” are the demos degraded through the lens of condescension. As Raymond Williams once put it, “I do not think of my relatives, friends, neighbours, colleagues, acquaintances as masses.” None of us can or do. The masses are always the others who we don’t know, can’t know.

So here I think lies the disconnection that is at the core of the non-listening political culture that Jim has, so well, described. How do you recognise voices that seem to be inherently unintelligible, vulnerable, vulgar, and peripheral.

Political elites have resorted to three compensatory strategies. The first I call, technologies of knowing without listening, of which opinion polling is, of course, the most pernicious exemplar. As one leading scholar from the British election study put it, when she was sharing a platform with me after the 2015 election, I quote, “Our methods allow us to know what voters think better than they know it themselves.”

The second compensatory mechanism are token exercises in listening. Jim has spoken very well about them. Consultations that are completely decoupled from decision-making. Talking exercises geared to carthasis rather than efficacy. Consequences are an important thing. That is why the usual suspects engage in consultations because it is the usual suspects, the rich and educated, who tend to get their way. And everybody else refuses to participate because they don’t.

The third compensatory tactic is cultural disdain, the preferred method of post-truth politicians, for whom listening to the public means listening  echoes of their own prejudices, and this, for them, serves as a way of avoiding cognitive dissonance, avoiding having to deal with the reality that surrounds them. They, of course, are the masters now. They are the masters, for now.

When politicians and civil servants fail to listen or to hear the voices of millions of people, expressing experiences that have been rendered institutionally unknowable, this is not a random error. It’s not a mistake. It’s not something they’d forgotten to do. It reflects a particular conception of democracy, an institutionalised insular and often insulting conception, but one that is so deeply embedded that I do not believe it can simply be dealt with by the kind of good intentions that Jim is attempting to promote.

I am completely with Jim regarding the democratic value of listening as a political practice. Let’s have more listening, better listening, for civil servants to go on summer retreats where they are made to listen, all lovely, I’ll run them.

But I think that more needs to be said about the object of democratic listening. What is it that we are listening to? And there are two ways of thinking about this object that are bound to be unfruitful. Firstly, listening as a process of calculable aggregation, as if the counting of randomised preferences could ever reflect the nuances and intensities of public voice. So all listening that leads to bland statements like “the public thinks…”, “the public wants..”, “the public feels…”, are probably profoundly dangerous.

Secondly, listening to atomised voices, complains, suggestions, testimonies, invariably reflecting the desperate capabilities of those who have the time and confidence to complain, suggest and testify.

In fact we over-listen to certain voices. And democracy demands the capacity to resist the entitled claims-making of the disproportionately heard. We should stop listening to them.

I want to suggest that we think, therefore, about the object of listening in a rather different way. Cultures are constalations of stories in circulartion. We attach ourselves to stories that make sense of reality. As a great sociologist of medical narrative, Arthur Frank has put it, I quote, “Good stories make one point of view paramount. Other subjectivities are disregarded. People caught up in those stories forget what those stories means to those who not the object of action taken from the perspective that the story encourages. A good life requires telling any story from as many alternative perspectives as possible and recognising how all the characters are trying to hold their own.” And this holding their own is something that I think is deeply important, and I think Sandra touched on it.

I am just completing a book about the experience of political talk, what people remember, think, fear and like about political talking. Henie and I developed this argument further, about how people attach themselves and detach themselves from stories.

But I want to conclude by summarising some of what I am arguing in that book, in the words of the American poet Adrian Rich, whose response to the pathology of listening that Jim has so well described and the catastrophe of populism from which we are all now reeling was this, “When someone with the authority of the teacher describes a world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrum, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing, yet you know you exist and others like you. That is a game done with mirrors, it takes some strength of soul, and not just individual strength but collective understanding to resist this void and to stand up, demanding to be seen, and heard.”

I think that demand is most likely to be realised, not by well influenced civil servants, but by the public itself.

For the full lecture go to

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