Silence is a Weapon
Updated: Jan 21, 2018
Content Warning: Mention of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse and war.
Silence is a weapon.
It has the ability to isolate, to invalidate, to cause a person with absolute clarity about a situation to implode, and to give way for abuse to persist. Silence has allowed whole nations to enact genocide upon targeted groups of people, and permits whole nations to perpetuate a culture of rape, all while allowing these nations to loudly proclaim that they do not condone rape.
Silence is a tool used to maintain the potency of coercive power.
It is used in a variety of contexts:
A new sexual partner ensuring that you will not let the word out about your encounter. A professional mentor advising you not to talk out about a supervisor’s uninvited touch. That mentor’s urge to not call that touch, uninvited. The hesitancy to call abuse, abuse, because it could jeopardize some essential resource an abuser controls and not because you believe it wasn’t abuse. The hesitancy to not name your well respected rapist because of a fear of further isolation, or because people might think of you as weak, or because you might actually believe the lie that you were harmed because you are weak.
Each of these instances protects the power of the person enacting harm and continues to compound psychological, physical, and emotional harm onto the bodies being forced to remain in silence, long after the initial event of harm has occurred. In some of these instances, whole communities become complicit in the physical, psychological, and emotional harm of survivors. When we stigmatize survivors as weak, we are complicit. When we tell a survivor that they are “gossiping” or attempting to “slander” a person’s character in their attempts to share their story, something that takes an enormous amount of courage, sacrifice, and risk to do, we are complicit. When we tell survivors that their “relationship drama” is none of our business, we are complicit.
Silencing is a shared enactment.
For some survivors, there comes a moment where the weight of that silence feels much more painful than the real or many times imagined consequences of speaking. Audre Lorde taught us that silence will never protect us, has never protected us. When a survivor decides it is time to break silence, it is a win against the war of coercive power. It is the survivor reclaiming their autonomy. Those who hear the call are asked to either side with a culture of abuse or to side with the work of transcending the culture of the community they share with the survivor. Abuse has a way of making itself feel like home, for survivors and for whole communities. It is the path of least resistance to side with silence, gag the survivor, continue business as usual, and still call oneself an opponent of rape culture. The African proverb that teaches us that the hunter rewrites history when the lion cannot speak is no lie. When the lion resurrects and is ready to speak, those of us engaged in the work of dismantling oppression like to imagine ourselves as eager to give that lion a platform. The path of resistance is often romanticized, and is made up of more than just pretty declarations and token niceties.
Breaking silence is more than just about talk.
Resistance might look like putting resources, relationships, and reputations on the line that you gained and enjoyed in the context of a culture of abuse. It might look like sampling the fear of isolation survivors consume in heaps. Survivors are our models when we feel that the time is ripe for silence to be broken. Fear doesn’t disappear, for survivors or for those who choose to resist. Instead, fear becomes secondary to the work of healing, accountability, and seeding a culture where abuse cannot breathe, cannot continue to be rewarded, and necessarily decays. For the survivor who speaks, fear no longer dictates our actions, no longer continues to give silence the power it holds against us. A survivor who runs out of fucks to give is a threat to the culture of rape and coercive power.
Resistance might also look like trusting the survivor’s anger, and seeing it as a site of clarity and precision. Too often, we distrust, fear, or otherwise stigmatize anger, especially when it lives in the bodies of Black cis and trans women (sometimes even when those bodies are our own). Of course, in the context of abuse, clarity will sound irrational, and precision will look clouded. Gaslighting isn’t a thing that only happens in single instances. It’s a thing that whole communities enact, and a thing that whole communities experience. The normalization of abuse makes enacting harm feel natural and sometimes rewarding. Engaging in transformative work can feel like negating the familiar and trusting the rage of those we’ve been encouraged to destroy.
Breaking silence is about action.
If we’re going to claim to be opposed to a culture of rape, we must learn how to turn off the learned toxic responses to survivors’ narratives. We must see what we’re doing, intentionally or not, in our workplaces, our homes, our classrooms, our turn up spots, our bedrooms, and our online platforms, to let abuse live. Those of us with the most clout, the most influence, and access to institutional power must reflect on who that power rests, and must be willing to put that power on the line if it is complicit in silencing survivors. We must also trust that a survivor knows when it is the right time for them to speak, and trust that their stated needs are guidelines for communities to know how to move forward in grounding a culture that defeats coercive power. We must share the emotional, physical, and mental labor it takes for survivors to carry heavy narratives within singular bodies, and share the labor it takes to externalize those narratives. If we don’t engage in the process necessary to make survivors’ self-determination a possibility when we are called to, we are not actively opposing a culture of abuse. We are complicit in it. We are policing survivors and enforcing the law of silence.
*This post was inspired by ideas beautifully and powerfully stated in Audre Lorde’s “Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” on prioritizing language and action over fear, and “The Uses of Anger: Responding to Racism,” on trusting the clarity that anger brings us and the ways in which Black women’s anger is stigmatized; as well as Kiese Laymon’s “Losing at the Sport of American Responsibility,” about how clarity is distorted in the context of a culture of violence.