Bad Listeners

Bad Listeners

Author: Johnathan Smilges

Bio: Johnathan Smilges is an assistant professor of English at Texas Woman’s University. As an educator, they teach courses in queer studies, trans* studies, disability studies, and rhetoric. As a scholar, they are interested in the interanimation of the aforementioned fields, and their current book project attends specifically to the use of silence as a queerly racialized, gendered, and disabled form of resistance. Their work can be found in journals such as Rhetoric Review and Disability Studies Quarterly. As an activist, Smilges works with a variety of campus- and community-based organizations that are committed to an intersectional and coalitional liberation led by the most marginalized among us, mobilized in part by pleasure and joy, and directed toward an equitable, accessible, and just world.

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I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.

—Roxane Gay

The truth is that I’m a bad listener—at least, occasionally. Sometimes I’m a very good listener and will listen and listen longer and more attentively than anyone else. But other times, I won’t listen or can’t listen, and these other times make me feel guilty about being a bad listener. 

It’s not that I don’t want to listen or to keep listening. It’s not that I don’t want to engage, to learn, or to be challenged. It’s not that I am resistant to being a good listener. I simply cannot listen at some times, in some places, and for some reasons.

As a neurodivergent person, I have sensory limits that are different than those of my nondisabled peers. During those times and in those places and for those reasons that I cannot listen, it is often because I am too exhausted, overstimulated, or overwhelmed to think clearly. Other times, I will have the energy to listen, but the substance of that to which I am listening triggers memories of previous violence or trauma. If I try to push past my sensory limits—to listen despite my exhaustion, my overstimulation, or my feelings of being overwhelmed—or to sublimate my triggered memories, I could hurt myself. I don’t want to hurt myself, and that’s that.

Unfortunately, that’s not only that. Being a bad listener is not the same as being a bad knitter (something else at which I am not very good but about which few other people care). Listening comes with political, ethical, and rhetorical stakes that risk framing bad listeners as elitist, unsympathetic, and even anti-feminist. Since Krista Ratcliffe first coined “rhetorical listening” as a tool for facilitating “cross-cultural conduct” (1), the concept has been widely cited as a foundational element of feminist rhetorical praxis. Indeed, Wendy Wolters Hinshaw writes that “a pedagogy of listening” is but “feminist pedagogy…more specifically” (265). Ratcliffe’s emphases on “understanding,” “accountability, “commonalities and differences,” and “cultural logics” resonate with feminist politics more broadly, which seek to establish solidarity across lines of difference in pursuit of a more equitable world (26, emphases in original). Listening, in this feminist context, is a necessary tool. It not only “facilitate[s] cross-cultural communication,” as Ratcliffe suggests, but also demonstrates a person’s commitment to the forms of solidarity such communication is intended to bring (17). Listening is thus both part-means and part-end. Good feminists make good listeners make good feminists. 

As someone who holds themself accountable to feminist communities, I am committed to Ratcliffe’s vision for rhetorical listening. I understand it not only as a promising strategy for navigating personal and professional relationships but also as a tried-and-true strategy for coalition work in activist spaces. Nevertheless, I am wary about how rhetorical listening has been taken up in feminist rhetorical circles as a measure of a person’s feminism. Does being a bad listener make me a bad feminist? What kind of feminist can I be if I am a bad listener?

This contribution is my way of working out (or into) these questions with neuroqueerness in/on the mind. My intention is to expand Ratcliffe’s rhetorical listening to include neurodivergent forms of rhetorical (non)engagement, thereby opening up feminist praxis to a more diverse array of bodymind configurations. Following M. Remi Yergeau’s description of neuroqueers as those folks who “perform the perversity of their neurotypes,” I invoke the figure of the Bad Listener as an example of neuroqueer resistance, as a person who honors their neurodivergent demand for perverse forms of listening, which regularly fall outside nondisabled norms for what is good, productive, and appropriate communication (27). Similar to Roxane Gay’s “bad feminist,” who reveals “all the ways [feminists] have room to want more, to do better,” the Bad Listener sheds light on the ways feminist rhetoricians can also want more and do better (xiv). On the one hand, Bad Listeners reveal the exclusionary nature of listening in feminist rhetorical studies, of the ways that listening can be deployed as a gatekeeping device that makes feminism inaccessible to neurodivergent people. On the other hand, Bad Listeners follow our neuroqueer and crip foreparents to reveal the counterintuitive potentialities afforded by exclusion—by failing, by being left out, by being not very good. At the same time that Bad Listeners remind feminists to do better, they also invite feminists to do worse.

Bad Listening as a Matter of Access

According to Ratcliffe, rhetorical listening is a “conscious choice,” something a person chooses to do in order “to foster conscious identifications that may, in turn, facilitate communication” (26). Unlike hearing, which might be understood as a passive response to auditory stimuli, listening is an active, “open stance in relation to any person, text, or culture” (26). One must choose to listen and to keep listening. Like with all choices, though, the act of choosing whether to listen is unavoidable; one cannot simply refuse to choose. If a person chooses not to listen, they have made as much of a choice as if they had chosen to listen. For Ratcliffe, the role of conscious choice is important because it positions rhetorical listening as part of an ethical project, one that is “motivated by accountability” (73). This “accountability logic” imbues the choice of whether to listen with “an ethical imperative” that—as Ratcliffe explains—can be fulfilled “either by listening and/or by acting upon that listening” (31, 76) In this formulation, rhetorical listening is the ethical choice, the correct choice. Ethical people choose to listen. And as Ratcliffe goes on to suggest, the stakes of this ethical choice are high: “such choosing potentially provides a means of physical, psychical, cultural, and spiritual survival” (76). Choosing to listen is choosing to survive. 

But what happens when listening is not an option? What happens to the ethics of Bad Listeners who, in the (neuro)differential interests of our own survival, do not listen? If listening is always already a choice that leads to survival, what does the absence of that choice signify? Who doesn’t survive when no one listens? Who dies?

Since the answers to all of these questions promise to fare poorly for neurodivergent folks, and since I am not particularly interested in predicting my own death, the Bad Listener in me wants to ask a different set of questions. As Margaret Price points out, rhetorical listening is an effective means of communication only when the speaker is deemed rationale, logical, and coherent—read: nondisabled. For those disabled people who cannot hear, speak, or “‘make sense’ on a neurotypical scale,” listening remains an impossible barometer of humanness (Price 44). To Ratcliffe’s credit, Rhetorical Listening preempts critiques such as Price’s by acknowledging that rhetorical listening is only “one tactic”—among others—“for attempting to negotiate troubled identifications that haunt many rhetorical exchanges” (27). In the spirit of building on both Price’s critique and Ratcliffe’s own “open stance” to other forms of rhetorical (non)engagement, what if we were to push back on the ethics of listening? What if rather than denying the ethics of people who don’t listen, which reinforces dangerous assumptions about the (in)humanity of disabled people, we work to accommodate them? What if we reimagined listening as a matter of access?

Sometimes Bad Listeners won’t listen because it’s not the right time or not the right place. This might seem obvious. Everyone has times and places that they would rather not listen, like while they’re trying to nap or read a book. But there are also times and places that nondisabled people assume are meant for listening, that seem to invite listening to happen. In these times and places, we imagine listening occurring spontaneously, suddenly, naturally. Seminars come to mind. My class is scheduled to meet from 3 PM to 6 PM in the room next to the elevator. Someone speaks, and someone responds. Someone else speaks. They are looking at me, the instructor. It’s my turn. I heard someone ask me a question, but I wasn’t listening, not really, not actively or openly or rhetorically. It’s been a bad day, and I’m not feeling up to any of it. I’m tired; my head hurts; my body hurts. The lights—fuck them. I want to cry, but that would hurt worse. (It’s called a meltdown.) I want to cancel class and send everyone home, but here everyone is: looking at me, listening to me, as if I were listening to them. I feel bad that I’m not listening. I’d feel worse if I did listen. I make a judgement call: we’ll continue with class, but I won’t be responding to questions. Write them down, and I’ll respond via email tomorrow. Talk amongst one another. I turn on my phone’s voice recorder. I’ll listen better later.

As a matter of access, listening might be delayed, split into multiple sessions, or moved. To make listening accessible is to adopt crip time, which—to borrow from Ellen Samuels—“requires us to break in our bodies and minds to new rhythms, new patterns of thinking and feeling and moving through the world.” Operating on crip time, our listening will likewise need to be broken in to new rhythms and patterns, as well as perhaps new modes and modalities, that reflect each participant’s needs in the moment. Instead of relying on the time and place to tell us to listen, Bad Listeners turn inward, asking one another’s bodyminds when and where to listen. I might be in my office during the mid-afternoon on a Wednesday, but now is not the time, Karen. I might also be lying in bed at 2 AM on a Saturday, emailing answers to all of my students’ questions from the week before. As an access issue, listening is contingent on the listeners’ bodyminds. It happens when it happens, where it happens.

But sometimes the access issue isn’t about the when or where. Sometimes Bad Listeners won’t listen because we can’t handle the way someone is trying to tell us whatever it is they are trying to tell us. In this case, it’s the delivery that matters. The delivery is the matter. Just as some neurodivergent folks can be triggered by physical (over)stimulation, others of us, me included, are sensitive to the affective intensities bound up with language. These intensities, typically expressed by body language, tone of voice, volume, and cadence of speech, can trigger memories of violence or trauma, regardless of the content of the message. For example, I have a tremendously difficult time processing anger or fear in another’s voice. A raised voice paired with a raised hand, even gesturally, can be utterly devastating. A person could be complaining about something unimportant and entirely unrelated to me, but if they do it in just the right (or, rather, wrong) way, I’ll be sent spiraling. My ability to listen, in many ways, depends on how I am spoken to.

This is difficult territory. Ratcliffe insists that “[d]etermining who should be given priority [in a listening event] depends on each situation,” but some situations are messier than others (98). While the Bad Listener in me insists that delivery—how I am spoken to—falls under the rubric of access, I am aware of how policing delivery can be weaponized as a tool of white supremacy. “The imposition that I be ‘civil,’” Kristiana L. Báez and Ersula Ore write, “is a strategy of white flight, a mode of deflection, mis-direction, a fleeing from responsibility or culpability” (333). Demanding that speakers, particularly those of color, filter their emotions to address my access needs risks reenacting “calls for more gracious and less ‘angry’ speech around race” that disproportionately fall on the shoulders of Black and non-Black people of color (331). Alison Kafer shares this concern, noting that “safety can too easily be deployed as a way of shutting down conversations or excluding particular populations” (12). Though it is simple to draw a categorical distinction between a call for civility rooted in white fragility and a call for access rooted in anti-ableism, both calls could result in the silence of people of color. And such silencing, regardless of the intentions behind it, enacts its own kind of violence and erasure. 

The complexity of this situation—where my very real access needs rub up against the tools of white supremacy—reminds me of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s work on “cross-ability access” (65). In Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, she thinks through the challenges that emerge from people’s conflicting access needs, which make it difficult or impossible to accommodate everyone at once:

I’ve often seen crip-only spaces fill with feelings of betrayal and hopelessness when we cannot fulfill some of our friends’ needs. Instead, I believe it’s possible to build a model of experimenting and seeing how it works out, then adjusting. We can try, knowing we may fail and things may turn out to be more complicated than we expected. (65-6)

I wonder what such a model of experimentation might look like for rhetorical listening, where people’s conflicting needs are not always related to disability. While the risk of failing to accommodate everyone is real and pressing (and something I’ll return to below), might there not be ways of understanding access as an inherently imperfect solution? Might Bad Listeners reject not only listening-as-usual but also access-as-usual, moving away from the assumption that access can ever be fully given but is, instead, an ongoing praxis, “a process,” a trying that is never settled but always under revision, always changing, always a question (Sheppard)? Much like Yergeau describes neuroqueerness as the endless “striving toward being neuroqueer,” perhaps the value of access lies in its endless pursuit of accessibility, in the potentiality generated by the friction between what we need and what we can offer (76).

Gavin P. Johnson offers a way into this (neuro)queer potentiality with “rhetorical foreplay” (122). Concerned that Ratcliffe’s original formulation denies the embodiedness of rhetorical listening, Johnson introduces rhetorical foreplay as a corrective that “trace[s] the material-discursive intra-actions of theories about and bodies in spacetime” (122). Like Bad Listening, rhetorical foreplay recognizes that rhetorical listening is a deeply em-bodyminded activity that produces queer intimacies among participants. These intimacies, Johnson argues, are essential to the work of rhetorical listening, but they also expose “the possibility of coercive, dangerous, and traumatic entanglements” (133). As such, he suggests that participants in a listening event should “contemplate the rhetoricity of consent” to assist us in “work[ing] through complex situations that are invigorating, frustrating, exhausting, and orgasmic” (133). In the context of access, rhetorical foreplay throws into stark relief the potential pleasures and problems that rhetorical listening can bring to marginalized populations, and the language of consent provides a lexicon with which we can identify and prioritize participants’ needs during a listening event. 

Openly negotiating who needs what and when builds trust, helps to avoid misunderstanding, and spurs creative solutions for addressing conflicting access needs. Piepzna-Samarasinha reminds us that among the most common “pitfalls” of crip activism is “[n]ot paying attention to the gendered/raced/classed dynamics of care” (65-6). White neuroqueers need to listen to folks of color, including other neuroqueers of color. This is not to say that race trumps disability but that (1) nondisabled people can have access needs and that (2) all access needs are informed by the interweaving of race and disability, as well as other axes of power and subjection. Insisting that listeners establish consent with one another reminds us that communication, like all forms of interaction, is laced with participants’ dis/abled, gendered, racialized, and classed expectations, preferences, and prejudices. While a neoliberal approach to communication would pit marginalized listeners against one another—race against disability, need against need—this strategy both denies the existence of multiply marginalized people and sustains the systems of inequality that produce many access needs in the first place. A consent-based model allows us to create context-specific plans for addressing multiple access needs, even if they are in conflict. These plans don’t always pan out perfectly, but they also don’t absent anyone entirely from the conversation.   

These imperfect plans might seem like a disappointing payoff for the intellectual labor involved in reimagining listening as a matter of access and access as a matter of consent. But I like to think that imperfect access, including imperfect plans, cultivates a unique form of neuroqueer intimacy. This neuroqueer intimacy of access, contra Mia Mingus’s “access intimacy,” is less about the perfect pleasure from when someone “gets my access needs” than about the exhilarating rush of someone working toward my needs—the oh-so-good feeling that someone cares enough to try, that someone cares enough to ask, that someone cares enough.

Bad Listening as a Matter of Failing

…and having said all that, sometimes listening is not a matter of access. Sometimes Bad Listeners won’t listen no matter when, where, or how someone says what they want to say because it’s what they’re saying that’s the issue. Of particular relevance to trauma survivors, some listening events will necessarily be inaccessible because they involve content that will be triggering—full stop. Period. In these cases, I move away from the lens of access because the problem is not with the context of the presentation or with the delivery but with the meat of the material, the stuff of the substance. Ratcliffe concedes that “[s]ometimes rhetorical listening will fail” (27). So in cases of Bad Listening that are not a matter of access, I adopt the lens of failing, of Bad Listening as a matter of failing. 

Most neurodivergent folks have a long history and complicated relationship with failure. Many of us come to recognize our neurodivergence through failing, through being told that we are bad at something over and over and over again until either someone else pathologizes us, or until we find like-minded kin online who help us to semi-ironically pathologize ourselves. It’s hard to understand neurodivergent failure outside the violence of pathologization. It’s hard for me, even now, to write about Bad Listening without feeling that tinge of shame, that oh look at them try to wriggle out of this one. How embarrassing. But wriggle I shall because, as Yergeau says, “there is potentiality in failing” (144). 

This potentiality builds on what Jack Halberstam has called “queer failure,” when “failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, and not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” (2-3). For neuroqueers, embracing failure offers the opportunity to enjoy bowing out of able-normative logics, to resist what neurotypicals say is normal or right or good and relish our weirdness and wrongness and badness. There is a lot of joy wrapped up in not giving a shit. But neuroqueer failure is not identical to neurotypical queer failure. The costs are higher for us; the risks riskier. To embrace neuroqueer failure, such as Bad Listening, is to make oneself all the more vulnerable to the material costs of pathologization: forced medicalization, involuntary hospitalization, incarceration. To embrace neuroqueer failure is to risk losing the material affordances of playing nice with ableds, of abiding by their rules: employment, housing, healthcare, family, friends. For poor, sick, and undocumented neuroqueers and neuroqueers of color, these costs and risks are even more urgent. Bad Listening as a matter of failing is serious business that verges on the irresponsible; or, less moralistically, on the all-too-fuckin dangerous.

I turn to Sara Ahmed. In What’s The Use? she proposes “queer use as the work you have to do to be” (223). Neuroqueers work very hard to be. Being neuroqueer is hard work. “Perhaps the harder it is to be,” she says, “the more use you have for use” (223). What is the use of Bad Listening? What is the use of failing, of bowing out, of saying no more when the costs are so high? When the risks are so risky? Ahmed continues: “When we cannot make use of some things, we might find uses for other things. What is usually understood as a limit or a restriction can be an opening” (224). Neuroqueers cannot always make use of listening, and this makes us Bad Listeners. Bad Listeners might usually be understood as limited or as restricted. Our failure to listen might mark us as broken or as useless to feminists for whom successful listening is tantamount to successful feminism. And the weight of joy is so very heavy when the world sees us as broken and useless. How can we bear the weight of a future if we cannot withstand the heft of the present? “How to reorient—or disorient—our perceived and involuntary failures?” Yergeau asks, “How to invite failure when failure is read as invitation?” (144).

Maybe it’s not a matter of invitation. Maybe we don’t reorient ourselves to failure. But maybe we do trace the contours of our individual brokenness in pursuit of collective healing, a healing that does not attempt to replace what was (never) lost or to (re)build what was never built but a healing that soothes. A healing that tends to the wounds of guilt, shame, and misrecognition  that are borne by perceived brokenness and uselessness. By being told we are broken and useless. By being scolded for not listening, regardless of why we’re not listening. And maybe, just maybe, this collective healing will reveal new uses that don’t exist in spite of our failure but have, in fact, been produced by our failure. “To offer a queer way of working” writes Ahmed, “is not to start anew, with the light, the bright, the white, the upright; it is to start with the weighty, the heavy, the weary, and the worn” (227). Bad Listeners are weighty, heavy, weary, and worn. Bad Listening takes a toll on the bodymind, even if it is in our own best interest. As a queer way of working, then, Bad Listening might be understood not only as a failure to listen but as a pivoting away from failure as the end, toward failure as the beginning, as the what’s next, as the what else. We don’t have to invite failure to see failure itself as an invitation. 

In this world, neuroqueers fail. In this messy, muddy world, neuroqueers fail and fail and fail. Bad Listening looks to all that failure and says, okay. This is not acquiescence. This is not an embrace of pathologization. This is not a white flag, an admission of defeat. To say okay to failure is to write yourself one of Ahmed’s “permission notes,” to take a step back from the fight and breathe (Living a Feminist Life 244). Bad Listening is breathing, is setting boundaries, is taking a break. Bad Listening is taking a break from breaking and being broken and screaming that we’re not broken. Bad Listening is healing, is self-care, is survival. Bad Listening is going home early. It’s leaving before the movie is over. It’s being absent to your own panel at the conference. It’s missing faculty and committee meetings. It’s crying in your car in the parking lot instead of going to class. It’s having a meltdown in the middle of campus. It’s riding the wave of your panic attack in front of your crush on the second date. It’s telling your own mother that you can’t talk to her anymore if she keeps calling you those names. When she keeps using them, you block her number, and you feel like you’ve lost the only person who ever really loved you. Bad Listening is failing, and it feels like failing, and it keeps you alive.

Bad Listening as a Matter of Survival

Sometimes Bad Listening is a matter of access. Other times Bad Listening is a matter of failing. But at all times, Bad Listening is a matter of survival. In saying no—not now, not here, not that way, not at all—Bad Listeners recognize that listening in itself does not a feminist make. While still sharing in Ratcliffe’s hope for rhetorical listening as a tool to traverse difference—“to see we in they and they in we”—Bad Listeners also cling to Ratcliffe’s admission that “rhetorical listening cannot solve all the world’s problems” (26). Bad Listening sheds light on additional modes of rhetorical (non)engagement that are not given to us neuroqueers but are constructed by us. These modes are not contingent on nondisabled standards of productivity or appropriateness. They do not succumb to neoliberal hierarchies of need, nor do they blame people for needing things while we live in a world that peddles those needs for profit. The modes of Bad Listening are slow and messy and loud; they are made by bodyminds who are in pain and tired and anxious and out of breath and frozen and perseverating and crying and hitting and sleeping and altogether too much and too little. The modes of Bad Listening are all of the things feminists are told not to do, just as neuroqueers are all of the things feminists are assumed not to be. 

But Bad Listening and its composite modes offer neuroqueers ways to stick around. Bad Listening offers us strategies for being in it for the long haul—“it” being feminism, being a commitment to communicating across difference, being a movement to dismantle the very institutions designed to call us bad in the first place. Bad Listening offers me the tools to email my class from bed that today was hard. Let’s try again on Wednesday; to text my date from the bathroom that this restaurant is too loud and crowded. Let’s go somewhere else; and to tell my mom in a handwritten letter that I love you, but you’re hurting me. Let’s take some time apart.  

I am a Bad Listener. I would rather be a Bad Listener than no listener at all. 

Works Cited

  • Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke UP, 2017.
  • —. What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use. Duke UP, 2019.
  • Báez, Kristiana L. and Ersula Ore. “The Moral Imperative of Race for Rhetorical Studies: On Civility and Walking-in-White in Academe.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, 2018, pp. 331-336.
  • Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist. Harper, 2014.
  • Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke UP, 2011.
  • Hinshaw, Wendy Wolters. “Making Ourselves Vulnerable: A Feminist Pedagogy of Listening.” Silence and Listening as Rhetorical Arts. Cheryl Glenn and Krista Ratcliffe, editors. Southern Illinois UP, 2011, pp. 264-277.
  • Johnson, Gavin P. “From Rhetorical Eavesdropping to Rhetorical Foreplay; Orientations, Spacetimes, and the Emergence of a Queer Embodied Tactic.” Pre/Text, vol. 24, no. 1-4, 2018, pp. 119-138.
  • Kafer, Alison. “Un/Safe Disclosures: Scenes of Disability and Trauma.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 10, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1-20.
  • Mingus, Mia. “Access Intimacy: The Missing Link.” Leaving Evidence, 2011. Accessed 16 March 2019.
  • Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Arsenal Pulp, 2019.
  • Price, Margaret. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. U of Michigan P. 2011.
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.
  • Samuels, Ellen. “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 3, 2017.
  • Sheppard, Alice. “I Dance Because I Can.” The New York Times, 27 Feb. 2019. Accessed 16 March 2019.
  • Yergeau, M. Remi. Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness. Duke UP, 2018.