Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
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Why Bother Saying What Will Never Be Heard?

August 21, 2005

The "locals" discussion spins on and has actually been interesting, when a handful of the Willfully Clueless weren't gumming up the works. You know how it goes: you're in the middle of a freewheeling discussion about, say, the subtleties of sex discrimination in your workplace, and one person keeps interjecting comments like "Well, I've never been discriminated against" and "I don't know why so-and-so has to throw a hissy fit about making the coffee." You could drop everything and deliver a snappy synopsis of "The Sociopolitical Significance of Women Tending the Office Coffeepot: An Historical Overview," or walk this person through her life to turn up the instances of discrimination that are almost certainly there but that she has decided to forget, ignore, or call something else -- but that would kill the discussion PDQ. So you carry on as best you can, albeit a little uneasily because you have a pretty good idea what's coming, and pretty soon it does: the individual starts in with something like "You feminists are all alike, you're so intolerant, you never listen to me at all." And flounces away, or, worse, bursts into tears. Whatever, the discussion is OVER.

An awful lot of smart and perceptive people don't pay attention to what does and doesn't go on in human interactions. Since I'm pretty much obsessed with what does and doesn't go on in human interactions, this perplexes me no end. What's particularly perplexing in this case is that some people can say with a straight face, "No 'local' has ever told me they have a problem with being called 'locals,' so you're probably taking offense where none is intended and when did the PC Police deputize you anyway?"

The notion that "the locals" might not be 100% forthcoming to a tourist or summer resident doesn't seem to occur to them -- which strikes me as odd, because most of us learn as kids that it's not a good idea to be 100% forthcoming about anything unless you completely trust your listeners. By experience or by osmosis, we figure out that there are things that must under no circumstances (even under torture) be communicated to any adult, especially parents and teachers. If we don't figure this out fast enough, we acquire reputations as crybabies and tattletales. Or we get our mouths washed out with soap for using the F-word in the wrong place.

This is an essential survival skill, perhaps the most important one we ever learn: exercise extreme caution when among people who have the upper hand. For kids among adults, women among men, people of color among white people, employees among bosses, year-rounders among summer "visitors" (the tourist industry wants us to call them that -- it makes them feel more welcome), it goes without saying.

And that's the trouble: it does go without saying. Often it becomes second nature: we don't think about it, we don't consciously realize we're doing it, and sometimes we even get hostile when someone suggests that we might be doing it. Sometimes I can't believe what I'm saying even as the words are coming out of my mouth. Several times over the years, a summer person has said something like "I bet you're all really glad to see us leave, aren't you," acknowledging that to a year-rounder summer can look like an occupying army, and out of my mouth come words like "Oh no, it's not really that bad." Even though it is. But the person has been friendly enough -- brave, even -- to acknowledge that "we" might have feelings in the matter, and my immediate reaction is to not make the person feel bad.

So I'll own some responsibility for the cluelessness of the summer people, and of men for that matter -- but only some. I've encountered plenty of summer people who, usually subtly but sometimes baldly, make it clear that we "locals" should be grateful for the dollars they bring. Having lived a few decades and read a few books, I can't help occasionally substituting "Christianity" or "democracy" for "dollars": you heathen should be grateful, you benighted ex-commies should be grateful, you poor wretched victims of Saddam Hussein should be grateful . . .

When all else fails, I can draw on my experience as a white person and a USian. I know for an absolute fact that there are some things we privileged types do not want to hear, and we get surly when those things are said too persistently. As a woman and a year-rounder, I also know that we read those cues, we know when the surliness (or worse) is coming, and we shut ourselves up long before we get anywhere close.

The feminist theologian Nelle Morton was, I think, the first to write about how hearing must often precede speech, "a complete reversal of the going logic," in which speech precedes hearing. She recounts an extra/ordinary incident at a workshop she attended in 1971, in which a participant managed to pull from herself a story she had never been able to tell (that wasn't even a story before she told it): "The woman was saying, and I had experienced, a depth hearing that takes place before speaking -- a hearing that is more than acute listening -- new speech that has never been spoken before." (The Journey Is Home, Beacon Press, 1985, p. 205.)

I think it was Morton who said: "In the Beginning was not the word; in the Beginning was the Hearing." Or maybe it was "Listening," and maybe it wasn't Morton. The air was electric with ideas in those days.


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