The freedom to listen
I often go to the woods to write. As I do so this time, a chill fills the air and the summery songs of the insects carry with them something that feels like desperation. The cicadas are almost all gone now; their slow crescendos no longer punctuate the lazy summer days. Theyâ€™ve done their treetop breeding, and their eggs have been laid. Soon, they will die. When the cicada eggs hatch, the larva will burrow and feed on the roots of the trees in my forest. For the next 17 years, they will live below the ground.
I love the song of the cicada because it is so long in coming. Each brood spends so many years in silence that their hymn of emergence, ringing from the branches of the trees is a song of liberation and redemption. When the woods fall into wintry silence once again, they feel eerily dead, halloweenish and ghostly, as if the dictatorship of ice and snow has come to oppress the cacophony of the summer song.
Lately, Iâ€™ve begun a sort of emergence of my own, nourished by the heroes Iâ€™ve read about in the pages of bdnews24.com. Hopefully, my song of emergence will eventually become a book. My idea is to highlight 12 heroes I have discovered in my two years of writing this column and to attempt to live by their examples.
The very first hero I decided to emulate will be mountain climber and Womenâ€™s Rights advocate, Wasfia Nazreen.
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I have written about Wasfia already this year, but her inspirational story merits more than a single article, and the lessons she has to teach the world are particularly germane in light of recent events.
A couple of weeks ago, a terrible movie about The Prophet came out. The talentless dolt who made the movie, a Coptic Egyptian, understood more about people who do not have a long history of freedom of speech than he knew about decency or filmmaking. The hatred he sparked is an emotion we Americans cannot muster after 200 years of saying whatever we want.
Thatâ€™s because the more free speech a society allows, the less emotional impact any given speech has.
We in the West are muted by our free, incessant talking.
Here I am, a product of a society where radio personalities crowd the airwaves, where hundreds of articles, blogs, books and papers are published daily. Freedom of speech creates such a blizzard of words that those who want to be heard have to shock their audience just to keep them listening.
Quiet, intelligent thoughtful speech is buried by the sheer volume of the screamers. In some meaningful way, discourse has disappeared. And maybe thatâ€™s a sad sign that Americans no longer believe transformation through intelligent communication is possible.
Or maybe as a nation (or individual) grows older, it grows more frightened of the idea of transformation.
In Bangladesh, I have discovered that the exchange of ideas is livelier than it is here — the USA. I think this stems from the greater possibility that what you say in Bangladesh actually matters, and that someone will hear you and respond intelligently. Two hundred years ago, that was true in the US as well. Freedom of speech implied the existence of a serious listener.
So I ask myself — who, specifically, is an example of a serious listener?
The answer came to me as I looked at Wasfia Nazreenâ€™s â€śBangladesh On Seven Summitsâ€ť Facebook page. At first, I didnâ€™t quite understand the point of her mountain climbing. I mean, her tagline is â€śWomen reaching heights,â€ť but what did it all really mean? What wisdom was Wasfia trying to impart by climbing the highest peaks on all seven continents?
To find the answer, I looked at her website, http://bdon7summits.org/. I looked at the countless pictures sheâ€™s posted. Then it struck me. Her treks to the seven highest peaks on each continent not only promote a womanâ€™s right to express herself, but they do something even more profound. They advocate for the right to be able to hear and to be transformed by the wisdom of others. Nazreen uses her celebrity to let you know, whoever you are, whatever your station, your words, your dreams your life is important to her.
Ironically, the protesters in the Muslim world, the rioters in the street, they do the same. The French cartoonist who created a series of blasphemous cartoons said, â€śWhen we print cartoons against Catholics, no one says anything.â€ť That must be very frustrating. No one is listening because everyone is talking. The only ones who understand speech as potentially transformative are the ones who have so recently gained the right to speak that theyâ€™re still listening to each other. So what happens? A Frenchman publishes a cartoon, a Coptic creates a movie. The Western world yawns. In a negative way, these men reach out to the only people who are really listening, who will react. Once they get their reaction, even a negative one, especially a negative one, the Western world pays attention. They become famous. They get hits on YouTube. They sell papers.
In order for your American neighbour to hear what youâ€™re saying, it seems, you have to say something incendiary to those people in the world who still think of speech as important. Across the world they react, and now your neighbour understands that youâ€™ve said something, and you get your 15 minutes of fame.
So must we always create anger and discontent to get people to hear us?
No. We can climb a mountain.
Hereâ€™s the beauty in what Wasfia Nazreen has done: she creates her celebrity, climbs to the top of a pulpit where no one can hear her, and plants a flag. Unlike other celebrities and press hounds, she doesnâ€™t shout â€śLISTEN TO ME!â€ť
Instead, she says, â€śListen to the dreams of your women, to your indigenous people, to your youth.â€ť
Then, she sets the example by listening herself. I have seen so many pictures of her as I prepare my book, and, yes, in a handful she is in front of a microphone, but in so many more, she is part of the wide-eyed audience. She listens. She allows words to transform her.
The Seven Peaks project is, therefore, in my mind, a perfect way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Bangladesh, a country pretty much founded by a people longing for the right not just to speak — but also to be heard.
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The woods are silent today. Perhaps the last cicada of summer has died in the summit of a pine tree, and the season has truly ended. It saddens me, but I know that if these insects were to sing all year long, their song would not be as sweet to my ears. I sit and listen to the world. I think about Wasfiaâ€™s cause, and I open my heart and allow the voices of the sisters and the daughters of Bangladesh not just to be heard but to be trusted. The powerful, transformative wisdom of their dreams may not be the stuff of front-page news, but, thanks to Wasfia, they are being proclaimed from the loftiest pulpits on the planet.
We men would all do well to turn to the woman at our side and listen. Not only listen, but value the womanâ€™s dreams, and encourage her to scale her own personal summits.
Then, let her climb, and cheer her exploits from the silent, lofty places in our soul.
Frank Domenico Cipriani writes a weekly column in the Riverside Signal called â€śYou Think What You Think And Iâ€™ll Think What I Know.â€ť He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute â€” a not-for-profit public charity dedicated to promoting respect for the environment and empowering individuals to become self-taught and self-sufficient. His most recent book, â€śLearning Little Hawkâ€™s Way of Storytellingâ€ť, teaches the native art of oral tradition storytelling.