The tyranny of silencing

// 28 March 2011

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[Image shows a raised fist against a cream wall. The fist is wearing a white cotton half-glove with the words ‘If you’re’ and ‘You’re not’ visible on two different lines, the top in black and the bottom in red, at the bottom underneath a line of fire (the words are part of the quote ‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention’). The cuff of a red and black shirt is just visible.]

If I asked everyone here who had been called ‘humourless’ or ‘too angry’ when they stood up for their beliefs in equality to raise their hands, I imagine we would see a forest of hands. It’s such a familiar situation – stressful, distressing, frustrating, alienating, but so common. Call out a sexist joke? Humourless. Call out racist taunts? Oversensitive. Call out cissexism? Angry over nothing.

People will say that it doesn’t matter, that we are post-oppression, that they don’t actually believe these things, that it’s ironic – no. The fact that these things are seen as acceptable in so many spaces is a powerful indictment of a culture that normalises oppression, that normalises discrimination. When you can say something discriminatory and say it is not oppressive, that is your privilege, that is the kyriarchy speaking. That is a product of a society that has told you – or certain aspects of you – that you have a right to this platform raised on others’ shoulders, and a right not to see the damage your stamping is causing.

Attacking a person for speaking up is pure silencing techniques. But here’s the thing. We don’t call out because it’s fun. We call out because that is worse than the alternative. We believe that it is worse to allow the discrimination to continue than to speak up, disrupt whatever is going on, and put ourselves through a wringer.

Of course sometimes we get angry. For a start, there is a reason we call it oppression; and also, often, privilege will deny itself, will deny our experience, will deny our pain. It is hard not to become angry in that situation. Justified anger is not an excuse for people to tell us that we cannot discuss things because we lack objectivity. That is one of the worst silencing techniques of all, a product of a society marked deep by colonialism that values outsiders’ dispassionate, Othering descriptions of marginalised groups above the lived experiences of the groups themselves.

Anger can be dangerous – and we know this. But we also know that nobody listened when we spoke quietly, when we politely requested a halt to the oppression. Anger is a human emotion, and there is no shame in feeling it, and no shame in using it against the system that caused it rather than allowing it to burn up inside, running like hot lead along the bones and eating away at the person.

A call out is not an attack, even when there is anger in that call out. It is often prompted by an attack. Because here’s why this ‘tone argument’ is so harmful – something said in a polite tone can still be oppressive. For example, if someone tells me that I am my assigned gender, they are attacking me. No matter how quietly they speak, how politely they word it – they are telling me that I do not exist, that they value their own preconceived ideas over my selfhood, that they do not care about me, that I do not know myself. And that is an attack on me, while if there is anger behind my words when I say, ‘That is incorrect, binarist, and cissexist,’ I am not attacking the person speaking, I am attacking their incorrect, prejudiced views. If I was to reply by saying, ‘I hope you die,’ that would be a personal attack – but that’s not a call-out, that’s unacceptable threatening behaviour.

Being angry, being upset, caring about oppression is not wrong. There is a line to walk – since when we are most passionate, we are most inclined to let the views of the kyriarchal parasite in our heads out, and there is a danger of appropriating others’ struggle if the oppression called is not one’s own oppression, and there is a danger in becoming threatening – but it is not the line that others would have us think. It is not the line that others have tried to make us walk to silence us.

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Comments are closed.

Comments From You

Quiet Riot Girl // Posted 28 March 2011 at 6:24 pm

I get silenced the most for speaking out against feminist dogma and for disagreeing with the basis of feminist positions.

This comes in the form of being called names (e.g ‘troll, asshole, colluder, uncle Tom, rape apologist, anti-women, misogynist, owner of an ‘honorary penis’), being told to ‘shut up’ ‘go away’ ‘kindly fuck off’ and also in the form of being blocked on blogs and by individuals e.g. on twitter.

The tyranny of silencing?

Yep.

It’s got feminism’s name all over it.

Laura // Posted 28 March 2011 at 9:40 pm

Fantastic post! *applauds*

polly // Posted 28 March 2011 at 10:19 pm

Quiet riot girl – if you are disagreeing with “the basis of feminist positions” you have the weight of mainstream society behind you, which is hardly equivalent to a person who speaks against oppression being silenced.

Clara X // Posted 28 March 2011 at 10:25 pm

Powerful article, and I agree. I often feel unable to talk about my political or philosophical views — and when I do express them, many people simply see it as an opportunity to tell me I’m wrong. I’ve heard over again that my views on things like tax mean I can’t be a feminist. I like a good debate, but if one side isn’t interested in hearing why the other person thinks what they do, it’s not a real discussion.

Rather than staying quiet, we should ask each other questions. Prejudice doesn’t normally last long if people actually get interested in talk about it.

Amelia // Posted 29 March 2011 at 8:36 am

This is so relevant to me right now, thank you for putting this up.

sianushka // Posted 29 March 2011 at 9:35 am

Definitely.

Silencing – ‘what about the..’

‘why aren’t you talking about x…’

‘surely y is the REAL issue…’

‘i don’t believe you despite the evidence you have quoted…’

‘i don’t believe you despite the stories you have to tell…’

and yes, the ‘you’re humourless’ is a good one, or ‘can’t you take a joke’ or ‘oooh you can’t say that around here, s might hear you…’

It is all a great big massive avoidance tactic. It’s a way of turning a blind eye to the fact of inequalities, the fact of violence, the fact of oppression. Silencing, diverting the conversation, arguing about what the “real” problem is is all a way of avoiding or ignoring the issues.

And so long as we ignore the issues of, for example, vawg in order to have silencing arguments, then nothing is really going to get any better.

paul kelly // Posted 29 March 2011 at 9:44 am

what polly said

Quiet Riot Girl // Posted 29 March 2011 at 10:01 am

Polly-that’s debatable. Feminism is more mainstream than feminists admit to.

I just get tired of feminists drawing attention to shut downs and ‘hate speech’ and language when many feminists are adept in these techniques themselves.

It is disingenuous at the very least if not hypocritical.

amy // Posted 29 March 2011 at 11:14 am

Funnily enough I am always silenced by the f word. I started reading the f word around a year ago when I was sixteen trying to educate myself with feminism. Since then I have been sent numerous emails from them calling me a troll, I find this very offensive especially since they are probably sending the same email to some misogynist who is actually trolling. Have I ever never wrote a sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, classist or ablest comment and yet my comments are never included. I am a regular commenter on womanist musings and not once have they ever not included my comments even though I write exactly the same thing. Bet this comment will not be included.

maggie // Posted 29 March 2011 at 11:35 am

‘It is disingenuous at the very least if not hypocritical.’

QRG: That’s a shut down right there.

What Polly and Sianushka said.

Quiet Riot Girl // Posted 29 March 2011 at 11:49 am

No sianushka a lot of the examples you give there are plain and simply people arguing with you. This is called debate.

I love how feminism always has a name for any challenge made to it, which immediately dismisses that challenge and portrays it is malevolent.

‘silencing’ ‘derailing’ ‘trolling’ they are all words used with the intent, actually of silencing feminists’ opponents.

I call out bullshit.

NatalieDzerins // Posted 29 March 2011 at 12:14 pm

@QRG

Hey, Elly.

Just thought I’d correct you on a couple of things.

You claim that you’re ‘silenced’, and that:

“This comes in the form of being called names (e.g ‘troll, asshole, colluder, uncle Tom, rape apologist, anti-women, misogynist, owner of an ‘honorary penis’), being told to ‘shut up’ ‘go away’ ‘kindly fuck off’ and also in the form of being blocked on blogs and by individuals e.g. on twitter.”

Now, I’ll accept that I’ve called you a couple of those things (troll and anti-women), and maybe that was wrong of me. However, you need to understand that the reason people block you and/or refuse to engage with you (neither of which I have done) isn’t because of your beliefs, it’s because of the way you go about promoting them.

You seem to spend your days trawling the internet looking for feminists to have a go at – even if it’s with a point as tenuous as the one you have here. The frequency of your commenting, plus your refusal to engage properly with debate (and don’t deny this, you do – I’ll come back to it), plus your generally argumentative unwilling-to-budge-an-inch nature, PLUS the fact that you seem to target people demanding that they defend themselves from your assertions when anyone could see what their point was, or they weren’t even addressed to/concerned with you (again, will come back to this) is why you get blocked.

People aren’t anti-anti-feminist, they’re not anti-debate, they’re not unwilling to clarify their positions, they’re just sick of you.

When I say you refuse to engage properly, let’s take *that* comment thread on my blog (I’m not going to link it, if people are that desperate to look, they can find it) as an example. You refused to stay on topic, started making baseless accusations, and demanding that I defend a paper which I freely admitted that I’d linked to in a tongue in cheek manner. You said you would not critique the article until I had done so myself. When I opined that this was possibly because you didn’t have an argument against it, you had a go at me on Twitter. When you eventually did write a response to my post, all it said was that MRAs and feminists should use strap-ons to go fuck each other. Hardly a reasoned and nuanced debate point. So for all my willingness to engage with you, and to reply to your comments on my blog, all I get out of you is a load of half-arsed, tenuous arguments and “go fuck each other”? Hardly fair.

Now my other point can also be illustrated with something you’ve done to me just this week. On Saturday, I sent an @ mention to PunkJonnyCash, in which I opined that anarchism and feminism were not mutually exclusive. Immediately, (and again, you can only have seen this if you were hanging around my timeline – follow me if you’re that damn bothered) you piped up saying that feminism excluded sex workers and a whole host of other groups. Now, firstly – not your conversation. Yes, Twitter is public, but there is etiquette. Secondly, can you see how that a) isn’t on the topic of what we were talking about and b) just feels like you were in the mood to have a pop at a feminist? Thirdly – I think this comes back to your unwillingness to accept feminism as anything other than a big, homogenous lump where everyone believes the same thing. I’m not going to start the debate about why I believe your comment to be wrong, that’s for another time – but do you see how the way you go about it makes people frustrated and consider you a troll?

So, in conclusion:

Debate is fine, but please go about it in a respectable manner, and make sure you have something to bring to the table other than “all feminists say this and now you’re not going to engage with me!” and “go fuck yourselves”, otherwise people just consider you a timewaster.

Nat

Helen G // Posted 29 March 2011 at 12:31 pm

Just a reminder that the original post is by an agender person.

From here on out, comments which ignore that fact in favour of derailing/recentring/name-calling and carrying on personal feuds will not be published – not out of any intention to silence anyone but because it’s making this space feel quite unsafe.

With that in mind, I’m temporarily putting *all* comments on this post on hold for the rest of today.

Helen

Quiet Riot Girl // Posted 29 March 2011 at 1:11 pm

tl;dr

Kit // Posted 29 March 2011 at 2:39 pm

I love your posts JKBC :)

“…while if there is anger behind my words when I say, ‘That is incorrect, binarist, and cissexist,’ I am not attacking the person speaking, I am attacking their incorrect, prejudiced views.”

I’ve noticed a lot of time people take it really personally and to heart when someone attacks their argument or what they’re saying. It’s as if they feel (though won’t admit it, pulling the “I’m not X-ist, what I said was X-ist” card) that what they say or argue is who they are.

It’s hard correcting, talking to, arguing or debating with people when they lack the will to empathise with people in a different situation to them. Yet they expect empathy and politeness from the people they hurt and attack with their words and actions (like when using the tone argument).

MarinaS // Posted 29 March 2011 at 3:52 pm

I have a lot of privilege. I’m white, cis and straight, and while I do encounter silencing as a woman and a feminist, I acknowledge that I have an amount of freedom of expression denied to many.

With that in mind, as a sort of scale for proportion’s sake, the thing that I find most soul destroyingly insiduous is silencing-by-pretending-I-don’t-exist.

What I mean by this is that I find that quite often people will make generalised and derogatory statements about women or feminists in front of me, despite the fact that they know me and know for a fact that I don’t fit that stereotype/stigma.

It can be a small thing – “those feminists with their buzz cuts” (I have long hair) or something – but by sitting there and calmly ignoring the facts of my existence, they make me feel invisible, and as if the sum total of my life, my body, my voice, my opinions, simply don’t “count” towards what’s considered normal reality.

Or it can be the other way around (funnily enough, that one often comes from women): they will make some generalisation that is ostensibly positive, but gendered and stereotypically feminine, like “women are nurturing” or “women are conciliators”, and it’s just so profoundly not the case for me that I don’t know where I fit in in the world anymore.

roy alexander // Posted 29 March 2011 at 9:47 pm

I quote the line “Being angry, being upset, caring about oppression is not wrong. There is a line to walk – since when we are most passionate, we are ” from your post and am full of all kinds of emotion as I read and read re-read it all.

I grew up in a lesbian feminist household in the 80’s and I have a lot to be thankful for. For example, I am unusually empathic towards women and woman who have suffered abuse at the hands of men, or other women. As a results I know I have helped friends, and am helping friends, deal with past abuses. As I write this, one friend has left a 15 yaer marriage where she was raped, beaten, and constantly put down. Another is coming to terms with losing her virginity and becoming pregnant at the hands of a rapist at the age of 15, she’s also starting to remember her younger childhood, and her step father’s control and abuse is figuring highly in this.

I have my mother, and her partner, and their lesbian feminist friends to thank for my upbringing and these skills….

BUT

I didn’t appreciate them singing “we hate men” kind of songs in my house as I was growing up from 12-17. I didn’t appreciate being regularly told that because I had a penis, I was potentially a rapist. I certainly didn’t appreciate my mother telling me, vividly, experiences of her own sexual abuse. I really didn’t appreciate her showing me what it was like to be abused, and I didn’t appreciate her telling me to feel her tits, and remember to like my finger when…. yeah you get the picture.

My mother abused me. Thing is she doesn’t remember much of it, or she’s denying it. She doesn’t think she she abused me because she thinks she was just sharing her abuse, and expressing herself, and trying to make me a better son. (her words). I got angry about it, but you know what, anger didn’t help me or her work any of it out, and it didn’t help me come to terms with, or deal with what went on.

Walking the line and being caring though, thats what has helped me deal with it all, and deal with her, and it scares me to see a post telling people that being angry is acceptable, and justified, and that its the right way of working things out. Its not. Its a good place to start, but its not how you work things out with other human beings, most of whom do their best as well as you do.

I tried the anger thing, I spent a lot of my time in my twenties in loving relationships, destroying them through massive and thorough and relentless infidelity, especially when the person who loved me got too close. I’ve still not worked out why, maybe there’s a part of me that thinks if I’m loved to a certain degree, then abuse follows ( like my mum did..)

I just think that whilst being angry isn’t wrong (at first), its just wrong as a emotion that’s any use for dealing with these kinds of things, and I think that’s worth posting about.

Angry didn’t get me anywhere.

I hope my comment isn’t deleted, because I’m not trolling, and I am a feminist, (if a feminist is a person who wants equal rights for all regardless of anything, particularly gender.)

Yes my gender is male, and my sexuality? I don’t know if it has a label, its normal and healthy for me though, and the other people I’ve shared it with in my life.

Alex // Posted 29 March 2011 at 9:52 pm

“Shutting down” is a weird thing. It’s not really possible to do except by deleting/blocking/closing comments, which obviously doesn’t work in your average meatspace office. You can’t actually end debate by saying stuff, you can only misdirect it.

Calling someone “humourless” doesn’t silence them, it diverts the discussion away from why you’re being a prejudiced helmet and towards why they/all feminists have no sense of humour – out of your comfort zone and into theirs. Calling someone x-ist, y-phobic or z-logocentric does the same. It redirects the debate away from the prejudiced viewpoint they expressed and why it’s rubbish, and towards listing prejudices and deciding who has them.

The problem with this isn’t that it’s “humourless”, or “too angry”, or “blah blah yadda feminazis”. It’s that it’s conceding ground. It’s easier to make it personal, and brandish your Black Friend and LGBT-Ally card at the accuser than it is to face up to the fact that your statement was insensitive, arrogant and, most likely, downright absurd. That your carefully crafted joke actually wasn’t that funny unless you hate transwomen.

Aside from that, being humourless is a strategic blunder. Labelling something as hateful, offensive or privileged isn’t going to win over any hardline misogynists, and well-intentioned people who’ve just slipped up can and deserve to be corrected in less confrontational ways. More importantly, people do resent having their mood dampened, and following humour with seriousness undermines your position. You have to fight fire with fire, and this is easy because the bigot in question has just said something stupid.

If someone tells you that you are your assigned gender, they are attacking you, but they’ve also opened their defences, exposing their dull-witted underbelly. Gently mock their stupidity. Demonstrate, playfully, that if they mean it, it’s not irony, and if they have to frame their real opinions to get laughs, then their opinions are laughable. Make them be the humourless killjoy who complains. Aside from that, seeing half the office giggle at the expense of their absurd prejudices might even make them rethink a little.

Joanne // Posted 29 March 2011 at 10:10 pm

I have been thinking lately on the flipside of this issue – how you feel when you DON’T call someone out for their oppressive language. I’ve been stunned into silence when I’ve heard sexist/racist talk recently and instead of knocking it down or even saying that its not acceptable, I’ve walked away. With some people I can call them out instantly, but with others – no surprises its all older males – I can’t say anything. Instead I fume and wish later I’d done differently. Probably my socialization as a polite quiet girl coming through there. Again I’ve made it acceptable for the person to continue saying bad things.

Helen G // Posted 30 March 2011 at 7:53 am

All pending comments have been posted. No comments have been withheld or deleted.

Any new comments attempting to continue yesterday’s personal attacks will not be published.

Helen

Lindsey // Posted 30 March 2011 at 9:39 am

@Alex – you can totally shut people down in real life conversation! You just state your viewpoint in the most aggressive manner you can get away with, eg “xxx and no one would ever be stupid enough to disagree, it just makes sense”. Some people might be able to come back at that but personally I can’t, and when people have used this tactic against me they know that I’m not the type to turn a debate into a conflict. It’s a trick as well in that sense, in that it baits you into looking like the angry shouty one (unless you can be really careful in your reactions, and there’s a good chance that these tactics are deployed in highly emotive/personal discussions).

@JKBC thanks for another inciteful and thought-provoking post

Quiet Riot Girl // Posted 30 March 2011 at 9:39 am

Hi JKBC

I am sorry if my comments contributed to this discussion coming to a bit of a halt.

I am glad Helen reinstated it.

I think you are right to say that it is important to ‘call out’ when people dismiss and belittle you and deny your existence, especially in relation to your gender identity. I still think though that feminism is just as oppressive as any other part of society when it comes to things like gender identity and ‘denying people’s existence’. I have had my gender identity questioned and made into a joke a number of times, by feminists and in an aggressive manner for example. My response is often to laugh it off but that doesn’t reflect how I feel.

I have written about my response to this discussion and my experience of ‘silencing’ on my blog here:

http://quietgirlriot.wordpress.com/2011/03/29/safe-spaces-silencing-sisterhood/

Kit // Posted 30 March 2011 at 10:13 am

@MarinaS – “With that in mind, as a sort of scale for proportion’s sake, the thing that I find most soul destroyingly insiduous is silencing-by-pretending-I-don’t-exist.”

I used to find that in work a lot. I used to speak out at first, but it got so draining and distracting dealing with the stubborn ignorance. And then when I tried to ignore it, they’d start on the whole “she’s being good ignoring this” kinda thing, trying to bait me further. My dad’s finding the same in his workplace too. He’s in an office with a load of men who are all from our “rival country”. They say the most ignorant things about the people from here and about living here as if my he’s not even there and my dad doesn’t feel he can say anything about it, just sit there being angry :/

@roy alexander – “Angry didn’t get me anywhere.” I find I get a lot of energy from being angry. I just haven’t found a way to channel that energy into productive rather than destructive things. (that said, I get a lot of energy from being happy too and still don’t know how to use that to be productive ;) ).

@Joanne – sit there and fume, and then get frustrated because there’s no outlet for all that angry energy :( I put off calling people out a lot because I easily get confused and flustered, and can’t form what I want to say clearly. It’s marginally better on the Internet, but a lot of the time I still have to keep quiet and back away as it’s still easy to be brow beaten into submission or silence in text (i.e. use of aggressive language, lack of emoticons or any other emotional indicator, huge walls of text and numerous quick replies).

luise // Posted 30 March 2011 at 11:41 am

Roy Alexander, I am so sorry you went through that as a child, you did not deserve to be made to feel the way your mum made you feel. I would not have the energy to have someone like that in my life and am impressed that you did. I hope your mum realises that what she did to you was abuse and she changes her ways. You are an obviously lovely guy and you deserve someone who treats you right and I hope you find them.

luise // Posted 30 March 2011 at 11:44 am

I actually wanted to cry when I read the second half of roy’s comment

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