A Few Examples of “Shut Up and Listen”

May 18, 2013

So I gave a talk yesterday afternoon in which I emphasized how horrible it was that women had been suppressed for thousands of years, and, on many matters, had been instructed to remain silent.  As I stated at the end of my talk, this enforced silence robbed women of their humanity, and I indicated that CFI was committed to working toward a society in which the autonomy of women would be respected and, among other things, they would be free to express themselves however they wanted. 

But that is not what people wanted to discuss; instead, a number of people took strong exception when I expressed concern during my talk that the concept of privilege sometimes was being invoked to tell people to “shut up and listen.”  Tweets during and after my talk complained I offered no specific examples. 

Two quick responses.  First, my talk was over its allotted time limit as it was, and my concern about the misuse of privilege was not the primary focus of my talk, as already indicated.

Second, there are examples you can find on the internet through a few minutes search.  For myself, when I drafted this portion of the talk, the two examples I had in mind were a presentation on privilege that was given at the Heads meeting in January and a statement by PZ Myers.  I am not going to identify the speakers at the Heads meeting, as the meetings are supposed to be confidential, but if you ask around, other people will confirm that there was a lengthy discussion of privilege, and within that discussion there were examples of how members of  “privileged” groups should be quiet and just listen to those in the non-privileged group when the latter were discussing their experiences. 

The Myers quote is below:

“When a member of a marginalized group tells a member of a privileged group that their efforts, no matter how well-meaning, are wrong, there is one reasonable response: Shut up and listen. You might learn something.
There is also a terrible response: arguing back. It always makes it worse.
It’s not that they are infallible and we are totally stupid. It’s that THEY are the experts and the subject of the discussion.”

It can be found here.

Other examples of the “shut up and listen” trope are here and here

By the way, I am well aware that our communications director in his personal capacity quoted Myers approvingly.  Obviously, I disagree with him on this point.  The fact of that disagreement does not affect our working relationship.  Paul is a great communications director.  Are there limits to what CFI employees can say?  Sure, but the restrictions are fairly loose.  At CFI, we do not follow the rule “shut up and listen.”  Generally, employees can express their opinions.  There is one requirement, however.  They need to supply reasons and evidence. Invoking their racial/sexual/ethnic/class identity, whatever it might be, is not considered a substitute for argument.