Silence is Golden

There’s a great deal of injustice in the world, and our nation’s helm is firmly in the grip of those who would see it flourish.  Many of us on the left are angry and afraid, and our voices reflect those feelings in textbook fashion: blaming, scapegoating, self-justifying, distancing. We are lashing out at each other, at those we have selected to call our Enemies, and at the implacable historical and political truths that shaped this moment.  We are encouraged by the media, by the echo chambers of our communities and by our own convictions to Speak Out against the oppressors and on behalf of the oppressed.  But let’s hang on just a minute and ask ourselves what we’re doing with our voices, and whether it’s what is needed.

Preparatory side note.  Being white, rich and straight in this country means feeling entitled to be heard, listened to and understood.  Our experiences are considered the norm against which others are to be measured, and our approaches to solving problems and allocating resources are held to be the be-all and end-all of making things happen. If this election proves anything at all to white liberals, it’s that we ain’t all that.  And part of the problem is that we talk too much.

As I try to figure out how to be of some use in this new environment, where oppression is blatantly championed in the halls of power and the tools of resistance—freedom of assembly, a free press, the rule of law—are publicly threatened, I am forced to conclude that increased shutting up is in order.  Here’s some times to try it out:

When I don’t know what I’m talking about.  I’ve never been black, or an immigrant, or crushingly poor, or queer, or trans, or Muslim. I have zero experience of being anything except white, straight, rich, educated, native-born and cis female.  One outstanding time for me to shut up is when I feel the urge to judge someone else’s account of their own experience, especially if their identity exposes them to risks from which mine protects me.  My urge to judge doesn’t mean the speaker is wrong; it just means the narrative is making me uncomfortable and I want it to stop.  Shutting up not only saves me from invalidating and/or silencing the narrative of another, but it gives me time to recognize that the discomfort is tolerable and even desirable as a tool to crack open my understanding.  Shutting up also gives me time to remember that other people’s experience of their own lives is not a thing that can reasonably be judged from the outside, no matter how great the temptation may be.

When I’m lagging in self-care.  Our comrades in recovery use the helpful acronym HALT to help them assess how they’re doing when times are tough.  Before speaking out, especially when the urge is aggressively strong, I benefit from asking myself, “Am I Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired?” If the answer to any of these is yes, it’s time to shut up until I’ve fixed it.

Hungry is easy, right? Just grab a Snickers and have at it! I’ve learned the hard way, though, to keep a watchful eye on the junk food and caffeine when emotions are running high—the crash afterwards can land me right back where I started, or worse.  So let your inner mom guide you when it comes to snacks, and make sure they involve some actual food.  Water, too—side effects of dehydration include irritability, fatigue and headaches, which are good reasons for shutting up all by themselves. 

Anger can be a useful tool in the struggle against injustice, but it is also capricious and exhausting, more effective as a short-term lever or catapult than a long-term fuel source.  Anger can launch us into action when we are mired in ruminating or overthinking, by making injustice feel personal and immediate.  It is dangerous, however, to let anger govern whether or not we speak, or what we choose to say.  When anger is blurring our ability to distinguish between what we feel like and what we truly want, shutting up is indicated.  Anger compromises my ability to listen—to my own voice or to anyone else’s—and my ability to think strategically.  Anger, like judgment, is often a response to the internal discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance. I can recognize anger as a sign to shut up until the dissonance is acknowledged and addressed (note that resolution is not a requirement—accepting dissonance, paradox, contradiction and lack of closure are part of this work.)  Anger, being an emotion, is ephemeral unless tightly gripped and painstakingly refreshed.  If my response to destabilizing anger is a commitment to shutting up until it passes, I am doing myself, my potential audience and Justice a favor.  While shutting up, I can spend 15 minutes doing something I find nourishing and serene—read a book, step out for a walk, take a shower, meditate, change my socks, listen to music, knit a few rows or write a poem.

Loneliness is a formidable enemy of shutting up because of its tendency to push us towards connection with others, often at the expense of all parties’ legitimate boundaries. In addition, shutting up makes it easier to feel even lonelier, feeding feelings of isolation, rejection, impotence and inadequacy.  If I’m speaking out of loneliness, I’m at risk for seeking consolation and compassion from those to whom I fancy myself an ally, adding to rather than lightening their burdens.  Loneliness makes me more susceptible to emotional slights, intentional or accidental, and less able to take ownership of my responses.  Resolving loneliness is difficult and not always successful.  When I’m lonely and need to restore connection, I reach out to my closest peeps and let the magic happen.  Shutting up leaves space for that.

Tiredness is the new norm, in these tumultuous days when every hour brings a new catastrophe, a new threat, a new abomination of justice. Our emotions didn’t evolve for this level of anxiety and fear in an environment with no physical threat.  Most of us aren’t in any more real, meaningful danger than we were a month ago (remember, I’m talking to my tribe here, whose risk of bodily, material or institutional harm is pretty minimal), and yet we are struggling with real horror and deep concern for our families, our communities, our country, our fellow-citizens.  I’d bet a paycheck that everyone who reads this has had trouble sleeping the last couple of weeks.  So tiredness is pretty much a given component of all the conversations we’re having, on all sides.  I find that my fuse gets increasingly short as I get more exhausted, and my ability to tolerate discomfort wanes dramatically.  This is a perfect situation for shutting up.  One silver lining about this atrocious mess we’ve gotten ourselves into is that it will still be here after a nap, after a nice dinner with the fam, after a good night’s sleep.  The urgency we feel over an argument is a message from our hindbrain to fight or flee, totally irrelevant to the task at hand.  We need to be willing to walk away when there’s no more gas in the tank. We need to trust each other and ourselves to keep fighting without every hand being on deck 24/7.  It’s okay to stop talking when our bodies tell us it’s time to quit. 

When I’m making it about me. Activism is scary.  No one in my tribe really knows how to do it right, especially those of us who haven’t done much of it yet.  We are constantly corrected and re-directed by young whippersnappers who insist on a degree of self-awareness and truthtelling that is not only impressive but intimidating.  This is hard to deal with, especially for those of us who have acquitted ourselves well enough in the world to meet its standards for “success.” Apparently we’re not that successful after all—the world is falling apart around us, our youth are looking at a future far bleaker than the one we faced decades ago, and our feeble cries of “Equality Now!” have only served to fuel a near-revolution on the part of half our compatriots.  We want to speak.  We feel angry on behalf of those around us who are in pain, we feel guilty for what we left undone, we are ashamed to be linked with those who are taking power and we are terrified that this whole awful mess is unfixable.  When I speak from this place of raw emotion and visceral imbalance, my thinking suffers and my words can be far more harmful than I intend, both to people and to the conversation. Instead of working together, we bristle and bicker about the RIGHT way to do things, and the work goes undone.  Instead of being truthful about our guilt, our fear, our confusion and our genuine struggle to tear down a lifetime of assumptions, we bluff and posture and compete against each other to feel good enough, enlightened enough, woke enough. These reactions are natural, but they are an obstacle to the work. Shutting up allows me to commit to the healthy care and feeding of my own ego BEFORE I next enter the conversation, and relieves my peers of the burden of being my emotional parents.  This work is hard, and much of it can’t be done in public.  I need to recognize when to shut up and step away and take care of my own emotional business, if I am going to be a reliable support for anyone else.

When I’m being part of the problem.  My tribe and I have been taught from birth that our voices have extra value because of who we are.  This is a myth. Our voices have no deeper truths to tell than any others, nor are our stories better stories.  Part of how people like us got the upper hand in our society is our persistent refusal to allow other voices to speak and celebrate their own truths and their own stories.  Part of how we hamstring our own movement for social justice is by continuing that refusal. Two skills we abundantly lack as newborn activists are: seeking out more authentic voices than our own, and encouraging them to speak.  Shutting up is a powerful tool to help us hone those skills, and to model them for others. When we step out of a conversation, acknowledging that our opinions are not what’s called for, and go in search of a voice speaking to the subject from lived experience, we open ourselves and the conversation to new possibilities of mutual curiosity, exploration and commonality.  When I find myself speaking on behalf of people or communities with whom I have no shared experience, that’s a good time for me to start thinking about shutting up in favor of them speaking for themselves, or at least being clear that I am speaking speculatively and without anchoring evidence.

If I’m not speaking up, doesn’t that mean I’m just making things worse?  No.  If I’m not paying attention, that makes things worse, or if I’m distancing myself from injustice or spouting insensitive, distracting, meaningless twaddle.  But silence is just the absence of sound; there are plenty of useful things for me to do while my lip is zipped.  I can wear a Black Lives Matter shirt to the grocery store in my white neighborhood, hang a rainbow flag from my porch, donate my beer money to the ACLU, educate myself about current political and cultural issues affecting communities I don’t belong to, write to my congressman, go to a community organizing meeting, pour my heart out in a blog, give my kids books by queer and black and brown and female and Muslim authors.  It all counts. This movement is going to go on whether we white liberals participate in it or not, and it’s going to triumph.  It will happen faster if we help, and one of the best ways we can help is by rolling up our sleeves, taking a deep breath, and asking “Where do you need me to be?”

P.S. There is no question in my mind that the agenda of the new administration is deeply rooted in misogyny, and that there is deep reluctance on the part of the media and many activists to address this aspect of the current political transition or our society at large.  While I do not explicitly call out sexism in this piece, I encourage the reader to bear in mind that the shutting-up opportunities identified above are at their most powerful and most effective when wielded by rich, straight, white, cis, men.

©Mary Braden 2016

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