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Listening across difference

How do we listen and how do we hear voices that sound different to our own? This question, raised by Tanja Dreher*in an article, Listening across difference: Media and multiculturalism beyond the politics of voice, elevates the skill of listening off the platitude level of the greeting card to the arena of radical politics.

Dreher questions the one-sided emphasis on “voice” in advocacy campaigns to bring marginalised groups into the realm of democratic discussion. Having a voice, she argues, may not be enough to challenge and counter “hierarchies of language” and “linguistic conventions”. These hierarchies and conventions tend to drown the voices of different politics, identities and desires. She proposes that a “particular kind of listening” is needed to “undo these entrenched hierarchies of voice.” This “kind of listening” requires an analysis of the way in which those who are privileged to be part of the mainstream conversation – the “discursively privileged” – hear and respond to “others”.

In the article Dreher challenges the media to face the hard and complex work of real transformation beyond the provision of spaces for diverse voices. The media, as part of the “discursively privileged”, has power beyond the recognition, representation and validation of different voices. Dreher offers the example of the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) in Australia that is required by a Charter to “provide airtime for diverse languages and cultures as well as education, entertaining and informing all Australians”. Dreher talks about NGO responses to counter racism against Arab and Muslim Australians in the “war on terror” aftermath of 9/11 through workshops with the media and marginalised communities that emphasize strategies for “speaking up and talking back”. While these achievements are important, Dreher warns that, for example, for Muslim women, being heard on “their own terms” remains a challenge.

“My insistence on attention to listening is not meant to imply that speaking is unimportant, or that the politics of voice ineffective or undesirable. The intention is rather to address the relative lack of attention to listening to better understand the possibilities for speaking and listening.”

Robert Mattes provides evidence from the Afrobarometer surveys that, in South Africa, despite a “reformed public broadcaster”, increased access to local and international news and more independently-owned media, there is little “positive impact” in terms of media use on the extent to which citizens believe they can make elected officials listen and have their voices heard between elections. Steven Friedman’s analysis of the South African media – that it “informs only some citizens of only some realities” – also highlights the need for a reconsideration of not only the way in which different voices are represented and recognised but also the way in which the media recognise and listen across difference. The effect of Friedman’s argument is, in Dreher’s words, that “mainstream audiences are again protected from the challenges of listening across difference”.

The complex and radical challenge is the difference between strategies of inclusion and strategies of transformation. Says Dreher:
“A transformative politics of multicultural media, in contrast (to strategies of inclusion), would seek to shift the unequal relationships of attention and influence between mainstream and alternative public spheres and the news values and media conventions which shape who and what is heard.”

More attention to listening and practices of listening offers possibilities for “innovative research and advocacy work”, says Dreher. Scholarly work in this field could point to who gets attention, whose voices are valued, who has discursive privilege, who refuses to listen. It could also shift the onus for change from “the other” or “ethnic communities” on to “the institutions and conventions which enable and constrain receptivity and response.”

Mamphela Ramphele highlights the relevance of listening in the South African context**:
“Helping young people develop communication skills to enable them to assert their rights as citizens is key to consolidating our democracy. An essential part of such skills is listening.”

*Tanja Dreher teaches Journalism at the University of Wollongong in Australia
**Challenges of Citizenship is Chapter 8 in Laying ghosts to rest – dilemmas of the transformation in South Africa by Mamphela Ramphele published in 2008 by Tafelberg

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