The Privilege of Voice and Silence

jo's picture

When I first thought of images of silence that I might post last week, one thing I considered was some sort of silent protest or vigil, since activism and protesting are very important parts of my life and I love the idea of silence as a political or social act. Though I chose to go in a different direction for my picture, I was interested to see that Este put up pictures of protest, and that, contrary to what I might have done, they were clearly not silent protests. She chose to use the opposite of silence, noise, to represent silence. As I see it, the opposite of silence is represented in these images of protest not only because the activists are shouting and being not silent, but because they are heard, they have power and voice, they are expressing themselves in a way that those who are silent or silenced often do not or cannot.

Though I have participated in silent vigils and have been part of protests during which we have consciously chosen silence, I have more commonly used voice as my main expression, and have felt great power when I have had this opportunity. I still remember the first time I ever spoke into a megaphone, during a march for Environmental Justice in center city. I led different chants and, though I couldn’t really hear it or take it in with everything that was going on, I knew my voice was being magnified and lifted through the streets, and I felt the importance of pumping up the crowd around me, sharing my enthusiasm and making it theirs. For the first time, I had been “permitted” (by whoever handed me the megaphone) to raise my voice, to be heard, and though I wasn’t even speaking my own words, just repeating rhymes written by someone else, neither was I being silenced; I was being heard.

I have felt similar power and significance in other protest situations where I haven’t been able to speak so loudly or even at all. At times, it has even been incredibly rewarding to be silenced by those I’ve been protesting (or sometimes they’ve been unsuccessful in effecting silence). Though losing voice can be and often is disempowering, it often signifies (in a protest situation) that the protested party is feeling threatened, or in other words, that the protest is working.

So what is the difference between choosing silence and being silenced? Though I have some positive and empowering experiences with both, I also have felt the oppression of being silenced, and I recognize my privilege in having the opportunity not only to raise my voice but to choose silence. For so many, silence is not an choice but a reality, and the opposite of silence, sharing thoughts and opinions, is largely unknown.  And though I have much more freedom to use my voice than so many others, I choose to protest because of the many ways I have been silenced by society, as a young person, a women, a member of the working class. I have now found my voice, at least in certain arenas, and my hope is to use this privilege to remove the forced silence from others and facilitate them in taking their voice. I realize these are lofty goals, especially when, in our patriarchal world, so many are silenced on a daily basis.  And perhaps my role in protests is more self-serving than that, because, as I described, it makes me feel like I have a voice, makes me feel like, at least during those moments of acting, I am not silenced. Though I may choose silence or be physically silenced, when I protest, my message gets across, and in that my voice is heard.

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Anne Dalke's picture

Beyond peace

Jo--
stepping off from Estie's comment--"in silence, one can think clearer ... than in noise"--I'll be curious to learn if the essay we're reading this week by Kim and Markus on different cultural practices of speech and silence--in particular, on the ways in which speaking can silence thinking--will push your thinking further in this direction.

I'd urge you to read Michaela's essay, too, on the complexities of silence--which also uses Estie's image and demonstrates, as your story does, the intersecting notions of silencing yourselves, in solidarity, and being silenced as a form of control.

But perhaps what is most striking to me here is the distance between this essay, and its reflection on the powerful protest that silence can offer, and your intial image of the vacuum of space, as "really summing up your relationship w/ silence": beauty, loneliness, peace. Silence got much more complicated for you in the week inbetween, I think! (so I can't wait to hear about the complexities upcoming ahead....!)

couldntthinkofanoriginalname's picture

Forced Silence as Rewarding

First off, I felt honored when I saw that you used my protest pictures in your essay. While reading your writing, I was captured by this statement:

"At times, it has even been incredibly rewarding to be silenced by those I’ve been protesting ...it often signifies (in a protest situation) that the protested party is feeling threatened, or in other words, that the protest is working."

I have never thought of the oppressive nature of silence as being rewarding. Whereas enforced silence usually signifies the continuation of oppression and is a symbol of defeat for the oppressed, your angle is that enforced silence truly means that the oppressed is "winning" since the oppressor is provoked into reacting.

I, too, have a deep history in and passion for community organizing. And so, I just wanted to thank you for that particular thought. When organizing and facing frustration, it is hard to not feel defeated when I am silenced. I always think I have to yell louder instead. This is not an approach I want to take anymore. Because of your thoughts, I will now welcome silence from the oppressor. In silence, one can think clearer about a comeback than in noise. 

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