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New Psychology paper asks: Are we experiencing a societal crisis of listening?

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Are we experiencing a crisis of listening? Recently, public debate on many topics has become increasingly polarised. How can we understand this explosion of troubled listening spots where individuals and groups come to completely different conclusions drawing on the very same information?

Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) academic Dr Johanna Motzkau and Dr Nick Lee from Department of Education Studies at The University of Warwick, consider these questions in their new paper, Cultures of Listening.

Is listening just a matter of taking in sound waves through our ears or decoding verbal messages inside our heads? If that was the case, we probably would not find some things more difficult to hear than others. For example, we all know it can be hard to hear negative feedback in a work or study context. And of course it can be just as hard to frame the feedback in such a way that it will be listened to. In our personal lives, our media use and political conversations, and even in the conduct of professional roles, we all tend to be selective listeners.

Their research argues that this is because listening is organised and guided by “cultures of listening”. These are dynamic webs of meanings, expectations and understandings that shape what we are able to hear, and who from, and under what circumstances. We further argue that listening is not a passive taking in of information, but a ‘doing’: cultures of listening shape what we feel we can do with what we hear.

All of this indicates that listening is not a purely personal, individual affair: it is always also societal, political and contextual. As people embedded into culture, we can all become aware of the cultures of listening that frame us, but inhabiting them can also make it hard to recognise them. The new paper takes first steps to systematically theorise listening and cultures of listening in order to understand these simultaneously societal and personal dynamics, how they can be studied and, if necessary, challenged.

Why does listening matter? In recent years we have all recognised that public debate on a wide range of topics has become increasingly polarised. We are experiencing a crisis of listening, or at least an explosion of troubled listening spots where different people or groups draw completely different conclusions from the very same information. Any one of these topics, from Brexit through to trans women's participation in competitive sport, would be a suitable site to begin the examination of cultures of listening. However, both authors have backgrounds in research on child protection and safeguarding so this paper looks at troubled listening from the perspective of child protection practices where police officers and social workers try to prevent, detect and prosecute the neglect, abuse and sexual exploitation of children.

Sexual assaults against children by caregivers, professionals and others have been committed throughout history but, up until fairly recently, this fact was rarely acknowledged in public and the crimes were seldom prosecuted. A specific culture of listening that upheld adult power and authority meant that children’s testimony was something that, as it were, could not be heard. Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone in to making sure children do have the opportunity to speak and that we can hear their voices. However, even though the situation has improved, it is far from clear that these children are met with the cultures of listening that they deserve, and over the past few decades UK child protection has become marked as a system in constant crisis.

Investigations into why it seems so difficult to improve child protection practice often find failures in communication between different professionals and agencies, and some recent high-profile cases that have been reported in the media indicate that children and young people were not listened to. The paper offers an analysis of troubled listening in the ‘Rotherham case’, that came to light in 2012 and where a large number of girl children were sexually exploited systematically by a group of offenders. The Jay report (2014) found that Rotherham authorities had had suspicions about the organised exploitation of young people, some of whom had reported the abuse, but their reports were not taken seriously, were not passed on efficiently, or not treated as a priority. The paper describes how children were denied access to care, consideration and justice, not so much because of individual failure, prejudice or malpractice, but because of the specific cultures of listening that shaped the listening practices and responses of professionals involved.

Understanding listening in terms of cultures of listening, as an activity that requires discretion, courage and effort, and also an activity that carries personal and professional risk for those doing it, could help us to consider the recurring problems with child protection practices less as issues of isolated, individual failure or malpractice, and more as the consequence of problematic cultures of listening that make it difficult for the professionals involved to hear and act on specific evidence.

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