Cultural History . History . Language and Literature . Political Philosophy . Politics . Politics, Philosophy and Religion . World History

Freedom of Speech as Well as Listening: From Thinking with Words to Listening Through Language

By Igor R. Reyner

It is evident that we are living in a particularly challenging time, where transformative and empathic ways of listening, as well as of understanding, are much needed. Surrounded by fake news and intransigent behaviour, isolated in our houses where we barely survive, with neither the time nor the energy to listen carefully to our desires and environment, we witness politicians and world leaders turning a deaf ear to pressing issues. This seem to grant the whole society the right to do the same. In this context, the ethics and the politics of listening to and being heard should make their way into the agenda. And yet, we are often far more worried about self-expression than the mechanisms whereby we perceive the political climate and contemporary issues.

In this fear-stricken, stress-inducing moment, what is said and heard must be thought of in ethical and political terms. However, the crux of our contemporary dilemmas might lie in the fact that each opposing group of people feels that their unidimensional political and ethical principles are the ones to be heard and to prevail; in other words, the ones that should be expressed. Rather than the excessive attention we often pay to our desire to reaffirm our own political and ethical stances, now more than ever what is needed is an attention to how we have been listening to what is already in the air; attention should be paid not just to what is being said but mainly to how it is being perceived.

Attending to these issues would radically reframe the way we frequently tackle relevant debates. As regards freedom of speech, for instance, it would involve advocating for a holistic notion of that principle, one that stresses the listening pole as much as the speaking one (or maybe even more). Since we more often think through words than with words, we tend to ignore that words operate in clusters. Rather, we are quick in our analyses to isolate a keyword, an idiom or an expression — such as freedom of speech — easily forgetting that a set of correlate terms will always hang over our use of those words. When discussing freedom of speech, we frequently do it by addressing the individual’s right to express themselves, broaching the collective’s right to listen to what is being expressed as a secondary step, when broaching it at all. From Plutarch’s reproach of people’s practising speaking before having even acquired the habit of listening (“On Listening to Lectures”, §3) we can assume that emphasising the importance of speaking over listening is an enduring practice. In a very eloquent analogy, he warns the young Nicander that ‘It is true that, in the case of persons playing ball, learning to throw and learning to catch take place at the same time; but in the use of discourse its proper reception comes before its delivery, just as conception and pregnancy come before parturition’ (“On Listening to Lectures”, §3).

On 4 November 2019, in a public hearing before the supreme court regarding the growing censorship in Brazil National Film Agency, composer and singer Caetano Veloso read out loud a text by an anonymous friend of his. Veloso’s anonymous friend denounced what I call the castration of listening by current Brazilian government. He contended that ‘In a society so focused on the individual, on the self of the author and on the obsession with the author as the protagonist, it is natural that we place the value of freedom of speech on the sacred right of the individual of saying what they want. […] I say that this is […] the smallest part in the principle of freedom of speech that is so fundamental for democracy. […] The greatest value of freedom of speech is to be found in the audience. It is more about the right of listening than the right of saying. It is the right of the audience, of the spectator of accessing varied ideas, including those different from the ones they already know and approve. There, in the autonomy of the audience, in its right to be exposed to the new and yet unknown, resides the cultural and democratic importance of freedom of speech.’

From circa 100 AD Roman Greece to twentieth-first-century Brazil, listening has over and over yielded to speaking. When it is finally examined, thinkers are far too eager to turn listening into discourse. This way, instead of trying to comprehend and describe the way in which listening is already in place in society, they advocate their very own way of listening. In my article Listening Through Language: Jean-Luc Nancy and Pierre Schaeffer, published in the recent issue of Paragraph, I put forward a critique of this normative tendency by discussing the role of auditory-related verbs in the work of those two French thinkers. I argue that French thought has sided with this pervasive trend. By a comparative reading of Nancy and Schaeffer, I connect the issue of language to debates about the descriptive and prescriptive approaches towards listening. I then map those approaches onto historical modes of framing politics and ethics. By revealing the links between political and ethical debates and the way we normally theorise about listening, I expect to make a case in favour of more descriptive and exploratory forms of engaging in the auditory, as opposed to the usual ideological instrumentalization of the ear.


Igor R. Reyner is a lecturer in the Music Department of the Federal University of Ouro Preto (UFOP), Brazil. A graduate of King’s College London, he obtained his PhD in French Literature in 2018. He collaborates with the ARIAS team (CNRS/ENS/Paris3) on the research project ‘Transculturalités des arts. Mots et concepts. Glossaires multilingues et interdisciplinaires’.


Paragraph is a leading journal in modern critical theory, exploring critical theory in general and its application to literature, other arts, including film and visual culture, and society. Find out how to subscribe, or recommend to your library.

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