As both a fervent advocate of social justice and a generally curious person, I appreciate the value of a rhetorical discussion. I want to hear voices that are different from mine, and different from my friends, and different from my politics, but which are nonetheless careful and thoughtful and provocative. They are, to me, symphonic. They enlighten, and challenge, and inspire.
“You can’t understand.”
The words descend between us heavily, stark and divisive and unmoving. A bitter teenager rebukes his parents. A tired spouse fires back at their partner. A poor American admonishes a rich American. One hurt friend speaks to another. A black American indicts a white American. Someone who has felt something deep, and abiding, and painful, speaks to someone who has not, and builds a wall between them.
It doesn’t feel like building a wall. It feels like speaking the truth—like laying out a raw, painful, insurmountable truth. But it is a wall nonetheless; the question is whether it is a true wall, or phantasm.
I have seen this phrase from writers of color describing what it is to be black in America. I have seen it from women saying what it is to be a woman in America. I have seen it from advocates of LGBTQ rights on what it means to pursue gender and sexual pluralism in America. From these writers, I read this as language from a place of hurt, or anger, or frustration, or exhaustion. It feels like accusation and exoneration both.
I have also seen this phrase, and perhaps more often, from people who are none of these, but still write about these issues. From those writers, the phrase rings hollow to me—it does not evoke the difficulty of bridging gaps, or the difficulty of understanding. Instead it rings like an excuse, like a disclaimer for those things the author may have failed to grasp, like a Pontius Pilate washing his hands of any damage done by his ignorance.
As I read these dispatches from cultural fault lines, these tremors major and minor in the fabric of our society, I cannot help but wonder: is it true? Can I not understand? I am poor—by American standards—and I certainly feel that the rich do not understand my life. But I do not think they care to—could they? I think (I hope) that they could.
Each time I see this phrase, I must restrain the impulse to give up. I must remind myself that the writer who has said this is hurt, or angry, or confused, or speaking what is emotionally true. But I also wonder if we couldn’t think about things differently. I wonder if there is not another way to express our anger and our ignorance, our exhaustions and our humility.
I want to listen to the voices of those who are different from me. Those who tell me “you can’t understand” are telling me that I need not even try. And it may be true that I cannot understand, or it may not, but I think to return that indictment is to divide more than it is to enlighten. So, while I do not ask anyone who believes this phrase to censor their experience, I do ask those who intend to advocate change to consider their choice of words. Only a small change in phrasing, I think, is enough to return hope to the equation and offer at least one small piece of a collective solution:
“You can’t understand, unless you listen.”