Word of the Month

Dakota Blackman

Photo Courtesy of Mark Wilson, Getty Images




  1. The process, function, or power of perceiving sound; specifically : the special sense by which noises and tones are received as stimuli
  2. a : Opportunity to be heard, to present one’s side of a case, or to be generally known or appreciated

b (1): a listening to arguments (2): a preliminary examination in criminal procedure

c : a session (as of a legislative committee) in which testimony is taken from witnesses

  1. chiefly dialectical : a piece of news

Over the course of the past year, activism has erupted around topics that have slowly but steadily been creeping into the public consciousness. In the era of activism surrounding the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter, hearings—as well as the absence of them—have been permeating the news. Trials and convictions for the shooting of unarmed black men and women, as well as those for cases of sexual harassment and assault, have been both present (in frequency) and elusive (in the follow through). Notably, most recently, and what sparked my curiosity about the word “hearing,” has been the four-day Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, the slated replacement for Justice Anthony Kennedy on the United States Supreme Court.

During these hearings, Senators questioned Kavanaugh regarding his stance on various political and legal issues that would affect his time on the bench. At a base level, this process is consistent with the second definition listed above: a hearing is the “opportunity to be heard, to present one’s side of a case, or to be generally known or appreciated.” It further defines a hearing as “a listening to arguments” or “a session (as of a legislative committee) in which testimony is taken from witnesses.”

Based on this definition, a hearing takes a conceptual step away from the simple nominal form of the word “hear” and adds on the process of listening for the purpose of making a decision. The process of explicitly connecting the simple act of listening to the law took about three hundred years, starting as early as the 1200’s. In the early 13th century, the verb “hear” was defined as “the perception of sound by ear,” or “the action of listening.” Originating from the old English heran, it also meant “to obey, to follow; to grant, accede to,” and—most interestingly—“to judge.” In the 1570s, the verbal noun used in the context of the law surfaced, defined as “a listening to evidence in a court of law.”

It is clear from these definitions that the verb “hear” is not just a general awareness of sound. It is also referring to the perception and understanding of that sound, meaning the act of listening is intentional, not passive. When thinking about this definition in the context of the law today, and specifically in the context of Kavanaugh’s hearings, one must question whether this definition is truly applicable. Listening with the intent to understand does not seem to be a skill in the wheelhouse of many of our politicians. White House officials and Republican Senators alike have withheld hundreds of thousands of documents about Kavanaugh’s record; conversely, confidential documents have been leaked anonymously. Kavanaugh is supported by conservative Republicans almost exclusively, and opposed by Democrats almost exclusively. The Republican agenda to push him through to confirmation seems to be motivated not by a willingness to truly listen to the arguments of those who may suffer with another conservative judge on the bench (due to his stance on Roe v. Wade or his definition of birth control, for example)—ironically, in this regard, these politicians have turned a deaf ear.