The Politics of Not-listening


Am I not speaking to you? If I am, then why do you look away from me?

‘Not-responding’ is a usual tactic employed by many to undermine the integrity of a sender or speaker and her/his intention to communicate. The tactic reflects the gesture of ignoring other voices that might differ the receiver’s views – politically, socially or culturally. The potential satisfaction derived by someone not responding to an email or text message lies in the game of practicing power and establishing a hierarchy where the sender is deliberately placed below. The sender is forced to leave its legitimate messages in thin air, and keep the expectation of receiving a due response on hold. The gesture embedded in the adopted silence can be deciphered in many ways, which can vary from ‘you wait, I will see’ to something like ‘you don’t exist in my view’. Be it an institution or an individual, ‘not-responding’ as a strategy can trigger ‘negative expectancy’ in communication, forcing the sender or speaker to abandon communicating, which is the motive behind receiver’s deliberate closure of a response.


It is possible that you do not listen to me

Irrespective of a dangerous lack of equilibrium in the context of no-response, handful of people have historically continued to reach out with sheer resilience. Their vociferous voices may not have triggered adequate responses from the self-proclaimed authorities, but the sounds of their voices could be heard now and then if one would open a pair of honest ears. Should we then contend that these authorities, institutions and corporate bodies are not listening to the ardent voices? ‘Not-listening’ is a gesture of showing all the more hostility to the sender. It treats a sender as pure noise – unwanted, and without having a significant identity of its own. It appears to make a salient point: ‘you do not at all exist in my perception’. Pretending that an email message wasn’t received in the mailbox, putting up the car window closed when a refugee or climate change demonstration approaches on the street, or removing a ‘sent’ message on a social website can make substantial differences. If the receiver does not consider paying heed to the message at all, the sender has no position in the communication. An avoidance to the existence of the ‘other’ may be perfidious to render the communication to fall apart. If my calls and cries are not listened to, let alone receiving a substantial response, I am forced not to exist.


The face of a man looking at me across the street seems to be hostile and unfriendly

If I listen to the contemporary times without a hurried or frenzied frame of mind, I can mostly hear the alarming silence of fear. With careful attention, the sounds that envelop me everyday in this continent where I have been living for the past ten years, lately unfold with a sense of unease. On the streets and inside institutional corridors of Denmark, and some other parts of Scandinavia, at some by-lanes of Austria, Germany, France or UK, I have met faces that refused to let me walk freely, with my dignity or a sense of safety intact. The looks in these eyes have dripped with fear, an awkward discomfort and loathing for the different; their ears refused to listen to my entirety, except to the outward dissimilarity in reference to a dominant mode of perception. As philosopher Gemma Corradi Fiumara suggests[1], a propensity to listen to the others, without making immediate judgments, may potentially lead to bridge a troubled water of difference. However, in contemporary Europe, as in a broader world, a serious lack of ability to listen carefully, mindfully and empathetically to the other prevail, triggering inaction and reactionary tendencies in public spheres. Which Europe is this, and for whom? Not everyone is safe here. Not everyone feels equally respected, duly appreciated and valued.


An outsider is he, who lives in the margin of thought, and intends to come to the centre of thinking-process. Thus he becomes a noise.

I wake up from a deep slumber. The Europe I grew up with in my mind from childhood is slowly fading away into a fractured landscape with a disintegrating conscience. Thanks to those intolerant eyes and ears on the street, inside academic institutions and in the larger public sphere, I get up finally from my sleep and get a glimpse of the gradual unbecoming of Europe as a microcosm of the world at large. These very personal experiences trigger a course of disenchantment. A land, which cannot equally respect the ‘other,’ may find it difficult to respect itself.


You will push the margin up to my inner silence if you cannot silence me.

The rise of ultra-nationalist governments shines in Europe and beyond. The institutions behave increasingly conservative and tend to exclusively serve an insensibly populist mandate. Equal opportunity remains mostly in the official papers, but in many occasions of the real politics, the consideration for colour, language, national and racial backgrounds reign in the critical situations of job appointments, academic recognition, or institutional funding, raising serious questions of bias. Listening around and further, the contemporary world seems to be marred by intensified conflicts between nations, and within various segments of people. Surely future human societies need to learn how to resolve such conflict of interests, values and beliefs. Needless to say that a sense of inclusiveness and plurality, enriched by acceptance and tolerance in our listening faculty is now essential to nurture, in order to navigate the challenging times ahead, which will be marked by scarcity of natural resources and an unprecedented human-made decay in the environments, leading to possible anthropogenic calamities. If we fail to listen to these impending catastrophes alongside the voices of the many ‘others’ in our societies, there will be hardly any time later for regret. It is difficult to believe that there is no collective resistance in any form heard yet. As if a sense of deep inertia and refusal to sincerely acknowledge the facts have permeated in the public consciousness.


But there are reflections of the shadows of my lips speaking on the wall of noise, enveloping us at this moment. If you ignore my voice, the wall will speak for me.

Noise is song of the oppressed. We cannot stay away from noise of any kind. Noise is powerful because it is omnipresent. Noise can infiltrate from any side of a tightly closed room, be it the living room of the clerics, or the security-proof corridor of the corporates. Noise can buzz around the ear until one tends to recognize it, and interpret a meaning. The aesthetics of noise can charm parts of the institution to move from their indifference. The dynamics of noise can disturb the limbs of the unresponsive public sphere to take a decisive action. People whose voices are considered ‘noise’ by not-listening, may determine practicing the very form of noise as a counter-tactic instead of forced silences expected of them by non-responding bodies. The art of noise could be the tool to disrupt the regulatory fences of a complacent public institution-corporate nexus, if its strategic deafness does not dishearten noisemakers, and they persist to reverberate the silent walls defying the mode of not-listening.


From the other side of the margin I continue to move my lips, and the sounds coming from my inner beliefs refract into an affective resonance challenging your ears.[2]

If ones who are keen to send the messages across, and are diligent to receive a response, on which their life and death depends, ‘not-listening’ can challenge their spirit. However, there are arguably two primary actions to sustain the struggle and put up a resistance against the dominant mode of not-listening, namely 1) the road to self-destruction, or 2) the path of organized disruption. These are perhaps extreme measures people embrace when institutions do not listen to them.

Disruption can be effective if it respects the delicate fulcrum of an inclusive democracy and stay fervent to seek sincere ways to make the other voices heard. Disruption can be effective if it keeps the space for dissent and humour. Disruption can be effective if its inner motive is to reconstruct remnants of the ashes into diamonds.



[1] Fiumara, Gemma Corradi (1990), “A Philosophy of Listening within a Tradition of Questioning,” in The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening, pp. 28-51, London: Routledge.

[2] Texts within italics are excerpts from Chattopadhyay, Budhaditya (2016), “Endnotes on the Margin of Listening”, in Dirty Ear Report #1, Berlin: Errant Bodies Press.



Budhaditya Chattopadhyay

20 November 2016