Listening as a martial art

Dr Emily Beausoleil sees listening as a martial art. When used in online interventions, it can create positive change.

woman with blond hair tied back with colourful scarf and green background
When Dr Emily Beausoleil (tauiwi Pakehā) and her team of volunteers go into online comments, they are looking for racist threads to challenge. Their approach to countering racism has seen attitudes change, something even professional moderators can find elusive.

“We see people shift from dismissive, defensive, or aggressive attitudes to becoming more receptive, humble, even curious. And we see actual shifts in position, which is always amazing to me when you consider how anonymous, toxic, and brief the exchanges in the comments section can be,” Dr Beausoleil says.

The academic from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s Political Science and International Relations programme recently received the Royal Society Te Apārangi Early Career Award for Social Sciences. The award recognises the research that informs the national anti-racism programme Tauiwi Tautoko that she has co-led with ActionStation since 2018.

“Tauiwi Tautoko (‘non-Māori in support’) was the brainchild of Laura O’Connell Rapira (Ngāpuhi, Te Ātiawa, Ngāruahine, Te Rarawa, Ngāti Whakaue), while she was the director of ActionStation. It was started so that those who are not the targets of racism get in front of and challenge these views, in a way that’s evidence-led. It was initially conceived to focus on challenging anti-Māori racism, but after March 15 2019 it expanded to challenge all forms of racism in Aotearoa New Zealand.”

Dr Beausoleil’s work has always been about how people can meet across profound differences and in conditions of inequality.

“Initially, this was about how marginalised communities and positions can find voice using creative means such as theatre. But when I moved to Aotearoa, I realised I needed to flip the question to ask ‘who’s not listening, why are we not listening, and how can we listen better?’

“I’m really interested in that obligation to listen and act in the face of injustice by more advantaged groups, and the persistent failure to do so.”

Dr Beausoleil argues all that embedded structural issues need to continue is for the majority of us to do nothing—to not listen.

“When you consider racism, climate change, socio-economic inequality, settler colonialism—all of these issues are built into the fabric of our very ways of moving and thinking and living in the everyday, and they don’t require us to intentionally cause harm. They just need the majority to fail to act.”

The first phase of this research explored the particular features of structural issues and the ways positionality affects perception and response, that make listening so scarce among advantaged groups. With these challenges in mind, she then looked at four sectors that help us listen when challenged: therapy, conflict mediation, Te Tiriti education, and social and political performance.

“Our intuition tells us listening is passive, so how can it be potent? But these arts, practised by therapists, mediators, and others, are martial arts. Because enabling another to feel heard can soften and open up our most entrenched and invested positions. And it can help others listen to themselves—which can catalyse acknowledgment and shift.”

She brought together what she learned from over thirty practitioners across these sectors to design Tauiwi Tautoko. There are five dimensions to the Tauiwi Tautoko approach, combining listening with values-based messaging.

“We teach a very particular kind of listening—because we’re not validating these views. And we are greatly informed by something Te Tiriti educator Veronica Tawhai (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Uepohatu) has communicated with our volunteers, that we are never meeting simply as individuals. When we hear a racist view, we are hearing one expression of a collective consciousness that is shaped by and shared across history and society.

“So we listen foremost for what lies behind any given comment, and ask sincere questions that invite the speaker to bring those experiences, values, and emotions into view. And, as importantly, we model the acknowledgment we are seeking in others of the experience that shapes our perspectives. We listen so that they can listen to themselves, and with it, the ways that structure and history are present in racist views.

“This is what enables change, unlike so many other strategies that seek to change views using force, pressure, or argument. It’s incredible to watch.”

To date, they have trained about 140 people to respond to online racism. Last year, the programme was independently evaluated and the results were extremely positive—and the more the volunteers used the approach taught by Dr Beausoleil, the better the outcomes.

Dr Beausoleil is quick to recognise the part her colleagues and people in the communities she has been working with have played in her success in winning the Emerging Researcher medal from Royal Society Te Apārangi.

“I particularly want to acknowledge Veronica Tawhai, Teina and Ngapaki Moetara, Jo Randerson, Bev Hosking, Takawai and Christine Murphy, Sir Kim Workman, Chris Marshall, the amazing team of Tauiwi Tautoko volunteers, and most of all Laura O’Connell Rapira whose vision and passion made the application of this research and its impacts possible.”

Dr Beausoleil and Tauiwi Tautoko alumni have created an open-access version of the 10-week training programme. She will use the funding from her award towards sustaining the training and support of the anti-racism work of Tauiwi Tautoko.

“Laura once said in our early days of design, above and beyond addressing racism online, if there can be an ever-growing community that listens first, and then responds, that is an important intervention in itself. I hope Tauiwi Tautoko continues to build that community, and help more people feel equipped and confident to speak up against racism in this country.”