Hearing voice and recognising privilege: Engaging in non-reciprocal dialogue

David Scott, The Open University

Voice entails the act of speaking and the art of listening. As an expression of our distinctive place in the world, the acknowledgement of voice is essential for human well-being. One of the key principles of ‘penal abolitionism’ is that we listen to the voices of others, recognising their diversity and facilitating their right to define their own reality.  To speak is to have an opinion heard, to count as a fellow but unique human being.

Through harnessing the principles of mutual respect and cooperation, the approach to hearing voice known as ‘discourse ethics’ attempts to arrive at a valid, mutually recognised consensus based on speech acts from debating partners. Discourse ethics is a centrally important process for hearing the voices of others. It is rightly promoted in the academy and aspired to in public debate. Yet its predication on equal co-responsibility for dialogue means that discourse ethics collapses without reciprocation.  Discourse ethics also restricts the hearing of voices to those based on mutual reciprocation alone. As Peter Kropotkin argued in the early 1920s, whilst a political system based upon reciprocation may be the preferred option, it is the non-reciprocated act of self-sacrifice for another person that signifies true ethics. Our responsibilities for hearing the voices of others emerge through asymmetrical relationships – that is, encounters with someone who is less powerful than us. The ethics of hearing voice, by necessity, are an ethics of responsibility that go beyond the rules of discourse. The limitations of discourse ethics for penal abolitionists – and I am thinking in particular here of those who are activist scholar – can be highlighted in two specific situational contexts: first in terms of hearing the voices of prisoners and second in terms of hearing the voices of abolitionist activists in the community. 

Let us first briefly note the difficulties of hearing the voices of prisoners through an exclusive commitment to discourse ethics. Discourse ethics face particular problems in the prison place because prisoners may be physically and / or structurally prevented from participation in conversations with the wider public. There may be no, or only limited, access to spaces for dialogue with debating partners within the prison place.  Further, given their socially excluded backgrounds, many of those behind bars have found it difficult in the past to perform the ‘language games’ or follow the rules of discourse ethics. Prisoner protests and small acts of disobedience, and perhaps sometimes even acts of self-harm, are forms of communication that should be listened to but do not conform to the rules of discourse ethics. Abolitionists have recognised that our ethical responsibility exists irrespective of the question of reciprocation or the following of rules of discourse. In other words, even if the prisoner is disrespectful and fails to engage with us in ways we would like, we should still patiently, respectfully and openly listen and respond when they speak. It means being prepared to be persuaded through the dialogical process.  Reciprocation can result in unjust compromises where the interests of the powerless are erased in appeasement of the claims of the powerful. For abolitionists it is important to be prepared to surpass reciprocity and discourse ethics in the pursuit of hearing prisoner voices.

Discourse ethics can also have limitations if exclusively adopted for engagement between abolitionists in privileged positions, like academics / activist scholars and community activists. There are clear power differentials at play here and there needs to be full acknowledgement of privilege. Privilege reflects life course, historical and current access to resources, and wider societal structures and divisions, and it is incumbent on those who hold privilege to not only recognise this, but also to give their time generously and be guided by the principles of kindness, care, compassion, love, friendship and the spirit of solidarity when engaging in dialogue with those who do not share their privileged position. Abolitionists in privileged positions, like academics / activist scholars, should be accountable to local communities, grass roots activism and struggles for social justice. This entails working towards collective knowledge and the building of trust.  It is essential for this that all abolitionists are prepared to listen and learn from others, especially those directly engaged in abolitionist struggles in the community. None of us are ‘soloists’ playing their own tune, but rather perform a role in a wider abolitionist ‘orchestra’. It is the liberation of the oppressed and the reduction of violence, harm and death that are of paramount importance, and those in privileged positions should attempt to infuse the local community activists with confidence, renewed belief, pride and dignity. 

Those abolitionists, such as those activist-scholars working in the academy, who are in a more privileged position should engage in non-reciprocal dialogue, always looking at the world sensitively from the perspectives of others, adopting or translating their language, meanings and understandings and trying to read unexpected forms of communication. This means at times going beyond reciprocal dialogue so voices can be heard and concerns addressed. It means reaching out and listening. Learning to learn from the voices of others requires service, apprenticeship and a constant willingness to try and understand their point of view. This is not easy, but hearing voice should always be aspirational and unfinished because it demands the continual search for new inclusionary visions of social reality; the acknowledgement of difference and diversity; and the desire for a new broad-based consensus or at least agreement to disagree.

I think it is important for all penal abolitionists to continually search out and acknowledge voices that are denied, silenced or ignored and to engage fully with divergent perspectives amongst those voices. Ultimately this means listening and hearing without assuming respectful reciprocation from debating partners or maintaining a rigid adherence to the principles of discourse ethics. They may be our aspiration, but sometimes we have to go beyond them to effectively hear and listen and to respect the starting points of those we are listening to. So I, and others, may sometimes disagree with the views expressed by prisoners, activists, academics or other activist scholars, or I may disagree or dislike how they perform their speech act, but it still seems essential that everything is done so that their voices are heard irrespective of how that voice is expressed. Perhaps the best we can hope for in this is that we are all a little more sensitive when appreciating differences of opinion; that we maybe become a little more skilled at seeing things from the opposing point of view; and that it reinforces our recognition of and sympathy for the inherent vulnerability of all people, including our debating partners. In the end, abolitionists may simply have to agree to disagree on certain issues, but perhaps we can emerge with a better understanding of where and why we see things differently.  The abolitionist struggle is against the violence, suffering and death that is insipid in the daily workings of the penal apparatus of the State. Even in disagreement we must stand against imprisonment in a way that is united.

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