Silence and powerlessness go hand in hand – women’s voices must be heard
Silence is the ocean of the unsaid, the unspeakable, the repressed, the erased, the unheard. It surrounds the scattered islands made up of those allowed to speak and of what can be said and who listens.
Silence occurs in many ways for many reasons; each of us has his or her own sea of unspoken words. English is full of overlapping words, but for the purposes of this essay, regard silence as what is imposed, and quiet as what is sought. The tranquillity of a quiet place, of quieting one’s own mind, of a retreat from words and bustle is acoustically the same as the silence of intimidation or repression, but psychically and politically something entirely different. What is unsaid because serenity and introspection are sought and what is not said because the threats are high or the barriers are great are as different as swimming is from drowning. Quiet is to noise as silence is to communication.
The quiet of the listener makes room for the speech of others, like the quiet of the reader taking in words on the page, like the white of the paper taking ink. “We are volcanoes,” Ursula Le Guin once remarked. “When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.” The new voices that are undersea volcanoes erupt in what was mistaken for open water, and new islands are born; it’s a furious business and a startling one. The world changes. Silence is what allows people to suffer without recourse, what allows hypocrisies and lies to grow and flourish, crimes to go unpunished. If our voices are essential aspects of our humanity, to be rendered voiceless is to be dehumanised or excluded from one’s humanity. And the history of silence is central to women’s history.
Words bring us together, and silence separates us, leaves us bereft of the help or solidarity or just communion that speech can solicit or elicit. Some species of trees spread root systems underground that interconnect the individual trunks and weave the individual trees into a more stable whole that can’t so easily be blown down in the wind. Stories and conversations are like those roots.
Being unable to tell your story is a living death, and sometimes a literal one. If no one listens when you say your ex-husband is trying to kill you, if no one believes you when you say you are in pain, if no one hears you when you say help, if you don’t dare say help, if you have been trained not to bother people by saying help. If you are considered to be out of line when you speak up in a meeting, are not admitted into an institution of power, are subject to irrelevant criticism whose subtext is that women should not be here or heard.
Stories save your life. And stories are your life. We are our stories; stories that can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison. We make stories to save ourselves or to trap ourselves or others – stories that lift us up or smash us against the stone wall of our own limits and fears. Liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories. A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.
Violence against women is often against our voices and our stories. It is a refusal of our voices, and of what a voice means: the right to self-determination, to participation, to consent or dissent; to live and participate, to interpret and narrate.
A husband hits his wife to silence her. A date rapist or acquaintance rapist refuses to let the “no” of his victim mean what it should, that she alone has jurisdiction over her body. Rape culture asserts that women’s testimony is worthless, untrustworthy. Anti-abortion activists also seek to silence the self-determination of women. A murderer silences forever.
These are assertions that the victim has no rights, no value – is not an equal.
Other silencings take place in smaller ways: the people harassed and badgered into silence online, talked over and cut out in conversation, belittled, humiliated, dismissed.
Having a voice is crucial. It’s not all there is to human rights, but it’s central to them, and so you can consider the history of women’s rights and lack of rights as a history of silence and breaking silence. Speech, words, voices sometimes change things in themselves when they bring about inclusion, recognition: the rehumanisation that undoes dehumanisation. Sometimes they are only the preconditions to changing rules, laws, regimes to bring about justice and liberty.
Sometimes just being able to speak, to be heard, to be believed, are crucial parts of membership in a family, a community, a society. Sometimes our voices break those things apart; sometimes those things are prisons.
And then when words break through unspeakability, what was tolerated by a society sometimes becomes intolerable. Those not impacted can fail to see or feel the impact of segregation or police brutality or domestic violence; stories bring home the trouble and make it unavoidable.
By voice, I don’t mean only literal voice – the sound produced by the vocal cords in the ears of others – but the ability to speak up, to participate, to experience oneself and be experienced as a free person with rights. This includes the right not to speak, whether it’s the right against being tortured to confess, as political prisoners are, or not to be expected to service strangers who approach you, as some men do to young women, demanding attention and flattery and punishing their absence.
Who has been unheard? The sea is vast, and the surface of the ocean is unmappable. We know who has, mostly, been heard on the official subjects; who held office, commanded armies, served as judges and juries, wrote books, and ran empires over past several centuries. We know how it has changed somewhat, thanks to the countless revolutions of the 20th century and after – against colonialism, racism, misogyny, against the innumerable enforced silences homophobia imposed, and so much more. We know that in the US, class was levelled out to some extent in the 20th century and then reinforced towards the end, through income inequality and the withering away of social mobility and the rise of a new extreme elite. Poverty silences.
Silence is what allowed predators to rampage through the decades unchecked. It’s as though the voices of these prominent public men devoured the voices of others into nothingness, a narrative cannibalism. They rendered them voiceless to refuse and afflicted with unbelievable stories. Unbelievable means those with power did not want to know, to hear, to believe, did not want them to have voices. People died from being unheard.
If the right to speak, if having credibility, if being heard is a kind of wealth, that wealth is now being redistributed. There has long been an elite with audibility and credibility, and an underclass of the voiceless.
As the wealth is redistributed, the stunned incomprehension of the elites erupts over and over again, a fury and disbelief that this woman or child dared to speak up, that people deigned to believe her, that her voice counts for something, that her truth may end a powerful man’s reign. These voices, heard, upend power relations.
A hotel cleaner launched the beginning of the end of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s career. Women have ended the careers of stars in many fields – or rather those stars have destroyed themselves by acts they engaged in, believing that they had the impunity that comes with their victims’ powerlessness. Many had impunity for years, some for lifetimes; many have now found they no longer do.
Who is heard and who is not defines the status quo. Those who embody it, often at the cost of extraordinary silences with themselves, move to the centre; those who embody what is not heard, or what violates those who rise on silence, are cast out.
By redefining whose voice is valued, we redefine our society and its values.