Monday, March 04, 2024

Listening at Union Station: Unearthing and Assessing Privilege in Our Scholarship and Beyond

written by Mark Standish
edited by Todd Dias

This post is part of the series Philosophy Otherwise.
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2014 was the first year that I commuted through Union Station. It was a mess. When I stepped out onto the platform, I was like a lab rat trying to find my way down into the subway. The plywood, blocking certain pathways and revealing others, seemed to reconfigure itself every week. Back then, when the concourse sat just off a hurried Bay Street, Union proved no respite from the cold business district to which it sat adjacent. Union’s bathrooms, too, were gray and cold. Tiny aluminum sinks moderated water consumption. I had a complex relationship with those sinks. One summer evening, I found myself with my leg stretched over the counter so my foot could reach into the sink, trying to rinse off the dog poo that I stepped in while, unfortunately, wearing flip-flops (who doesn’t clean up their dog poo on Front Street?). Needless to say, those sinks are meant for washing your hands, not your feet. This is why I always thought it was strange that security patrolled those bathrooms so regularly. I mean, what would a homeless person do with those sinks? Weren’t the sinks themselves deterrent enough?

In those days, Union was a space that seemed to lack time, as if nothing happened within its walls. My trips through, twice daily, produced remarkably few memories. In fact, the dog poo and being handed free Cheese Whiz are the only two specific memories I have. I’ve since realized that that was by design; the experience was supposed to be as unremarkable as possible. I was supposed to go from point A to point B with the least possible obstruction.

Four years later, one of those plywooded areas was unveiled. The York Street Concourse. Just before the opening of the concourse, an elbow found its way into my forehead and sent me back into the all-too-familiar throes of a concussion. After spending a few weeks recovering, I decided to reenter normal life for the start of the winter semester. I emerged onto the platform at Union. Herded down the stairs, I stepped through the doors into the York Concourse. The food court, previously hidden behind caution tape, was open. I knew this immediately. The added LED screens, spectacularly wrapped around pillars, shouting advertisements at me, forced my eyes to the floor.

Then, in the subway station, I looked up to find more screens mounted opposite me. When I got to class, someone showed me a video on their phone, which I politely watched, thinking about the damage I was doing to my brain, growing dizzy and nauseous.

A few days later, I was driving down King Street in Hamilton. It just so happened that there was a new digital billboard on King and Dundurn. Then, I was driving my girlfriend’s car. Did you know that the instruments on some cars are displayed on LED screens? Of course, you did. I did, too. It just didn’t really mean anything to me.

At times in Union, or on the Gardiner, or in my friend’s living room, I felt overwhelmed. I felt like a person in a snowstorm, shielding my face from the elements. These moments of bombardment acted like synecdoche. They were minor aspects of the world that reminded me that the world at large wasn’t made for people with concussions.

In a sense, the recent history of Union Station says more about me than it does about Union. Union went from a place quintessentially free of obstacles to one littered with them. But Union hadn’t changed—not substantively, anyway. The truth is that there were screens enough to bombard me before the new concourse. Did I consider that those screens might be hurting people? Not once. Not until they were hurting me.

Did I consider the security guards patrolling the bathroom? Not really—not more than as a curiosity. But I’d imagine a homeless person would’ve considered them. I’d imagine a Black person would’ve considered them, too. (Or, indeed, anyone discriminated against by racial profiling.) 

Did I consider the difficulty that the plywood blockades would pose for someone who uses a wheelchair? Nope.

People without certain privileges cannot simply pass through Union without a second thought. Union forces them to consider it. And yet, Union is designed to be left unconsidered—if it’s memorable, something is wrong. That’s why I didn’t have any memories of it. Though, once I felt that alienation—that sense that this place was not for me—I had to ask: Who was it made for? Has it always been like this, and I’ve just never noticed?

This is one way I’ve come to understand my privilege: I have the privilege not to consider.

I don’t have to consider the police when they walk past me. I don’t have to consider my sexuality or gender when I walk into a church. I don’t have to consider which bathroom to enter. I don’t have to consider the hulking man walking toward me on the street. Just like I didn’t have to consider the LED screens in Union before.

So, what does this mean for me? How should I respond to this newfound realization of my privilege (which stems, ironically, from the loss of some of my privilege)? There are a few options.

After realizing that I’ve lost some privilege, I could forgo considering my privilege in other areas. However, this option is naïve to the reality that privilege, like oppression, is intersectional; in some aspects of our lives, we have more privilege, and in others, we have less.

Or, I could pretend that I haven’t lost any privilege and force myself to continue inconsiderately. I could try to live as before without considering my new limitations. This option obviously perpetuates privilege and only works to delay the inevitable realization being thrust upon me as I face the consequences of neglecting my cognitive health.

Another option is to look inward; I could feel guilty about the privilege I’ve had my entire life. But guilt, in my experience, is debilitating. Being consumed with my own experience of privilege distracts me from actually considering others and the ways they’re typically not considered.

In the few years I’ve spent trying to reckon with my privilege, I’ve tried to avoid all three of these responses. This is why I’m telling my story. It’s not meant to highlight my own lack of privilege—I still have plenty to spare! It’s meant to highlight that in losing some of my privilege, I realized, in a small way, how much privilege I had and continue to have.

But it wasn’t just a mindset. My mindset reflected my world because our world was made for people like me. Our way of being–the way of being for the privileged–has annexed almost everything. This is exactly what colonialism was/is; colonialism makes the world into a home for one group. Given that the world was my home, I felt comfortable, which shielded me from seeing the conditions of my comfort.

My experience at Union disrupted the comfort I used to feel. That discomfort called me to respond. But I felt the three responses I outlined earlier were wrong-headed. Instead, I decided I needed to begin by changing my hermeneutic. My experience at Union prompted me to revisit how I consider the world. Unfortunately, privilege is ingrained in me and our culture. Because it’s ingrained in both me and our culture, I can’t always see it. It just seems natural.

Because privilege often feels so natural to me, I need to undertake some kind of practice to disrupt it. For this reason, I’ve been trying to teach myself to listen. But listening is really hard. It’s not just being in the presence of someone else talking. Listening takes work. As best as I can, it requires me to enter into someone else’s world and imagine being otherwise. And, as I’ve started to realize, when someone lets you into their world, their world can haunt you. For this reason, listening doesn’t stop when the person stops talking. In listening, it’s as if you carry their words and those words begin to illuminate your world differently. In this way, listening can reveal structures in your world that you couldn’t see before. Listening, then, is more than just lending an ear. Instead, when I listen, I submit my very way of seeing the world to the other person. In so doing, I submit myself to the call inherent to their experience. Thus, listening is not distinct from action. I would venture to say that you haven’t really listened if listening doesn’t call you to some form of action.

Further action might begin with more listening. Perhaps I’m called to seek out another text about how my world developed in relation to the other person’s—how the structures that subjugate that person are a part of my history. But it’s not enough for me to know and acknowledge the history of, for example, Residential Schools and my faith tradition’s complicity in them. I still haven’t listened to the call that those experiences demand of me. The call is to submit to the other’s perspective. This means relinquishing control over the world and the structures that uphold my security and the other’s precarity.

As scholars, the work of listening must extend into our scholarly life. Being privileged means that the solutions I propose concerning the world’s problems are prone to being my solutions to my world. If unchecked, privileged scholarship that doesn’t   easily perpetuates this insidious colonial impulse: to assume the world is ours (that is, for those of us with privilege) for the taking/making. Scholarly listening involves choices about who to read, what to write on, and how to write on it. It involves recognizing that my perspective and world are incomplete and that I should cede some of my airtime in classrooms, publications, conferences, and conversations. Conversely, I must recognize that another’s perspective might be complete in ways mine is incomplete. Therefore, scholarly listening involves submitting your world to colleagues, students, and scholars with whom you wouldn’t naturally engage.

Recently, I’ve been working on a very simple way to submit myself to others; I’ve been trying to combat my impulse to speak first. And when someone else speaks, I try to submit myself to them instead of formulating what I’m going to say next. That’s just one small response. But, small responses can snowball. Listening to your colleagues or students might cause you to see more deficits in your perspective, which in turn might call you to listen more. I hope that as I learn to listen first, I will begin to make listening my way of life. In this way, listening provides direction to my long pursuit of unearthing and appraising the privilege that cuts through myself and our world. 

Mark Standish is a PhD candidate at ICS. He is interested in the connection between the body, place, and ritual and its influence on the interpretation of political phenomena. Beyond that, he enjoys writing, sports, and a good pun.

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