on silence and silencing
As part of a course on gender studies and epistemologies, I’ve been reading about feminist perspectives on silence — on what it means to ‘speak’ and use your ‘voice’, on the capacity of silence to act as resistance, on negotiating voices and silences as a researcher. I’m finding myself troubled (in a good way) by these reflections, and what they tell me about my own relationship to silence.
There’s something about being a small and obviously Asian girl that makes people decide, instinctively, that silence is one of my virtues. I grew up being described, over and over again, by teachers and other adults, as a ‘quiet achiever’. Even in the past few years, I’ve had managers and co-workers describe me as quiet. It’s never just a comment, either; it’s the context they give before encouraging me to be more active in meetings and offer ideas, or nudging me into being more vocal.
Silence — what we perceive as the absence of communication or expression, often defined narrowly in terms of speech — is culturally bound and mediated by structures of power and their underlying ideologies. Silence is socially unacceptable: it needs to be filled with small talk, or is perceived as rude or disrespectful. Silence is a marker of disengagement or ignorance: not speaking up means not caring or not understanding. Silence is a character flaw: to be shy is to be anti-social, unfriendly, cold.
I’m often gently penalised or chastised for my embrace of silence. It’s funny to me, because, as people closest to me will know, in the right contexts, I never shut up. It’s particularly funny to me when I remember that I have, technically, been a professional public speaker: I have been paid to not be silent! And it’s also funny to me, to realise that I have learned to understand being quiet as something to be remedied, when there is in fact such power in silence.
Funny — but also deeply cathartic. When I opened up my assigned readings for our seminar on voice and silence, I expected them to pose challenges to my research, to push me to re-evaluate my legitimacy as a knower and a writer. And whilst they did, they also gave me a sense of relief that I had not expected.
“The burden of social change is placed upon those least empowered to intervene in the conditions of their oppression. The figure of the subaltern gaining voice captures the political imaginary, shifting the focus away from the labor that might be demanded of those in positions of power to learn to listen to subaltern inscriptions—those modes of expression that are often interpreted as “silence.””
Recognising silence as resistance, as the rejection of a misplaced burden, makes me feel seen. It brings me comfort that to be quiet is also to take care of myself. I can use silence to deny others my emotional labour, when I refuse to share my views when it is not incumbent on me to do so. I’ve had to draw boundaries in my advocacy and my work this year, boundaries that I’ve previously denied myself the opportunity to draw for the sake of the ‘greater good’, and I would be lying if I did not acknowledge that it brings me shame to do so. But I cannot be a martyr, and I can choose silence as my way of re-asserting power against oppressive regimes.
As a scholar-activist (and I’ve come to realise that these are inseparable parts of who I am, that I understand research as advocacy and politically motivated in a way others will not), I’ve been taught to be loud through ‘speaking up’, even though silence is often louder. But in the act of ‘speaking up’, I can also cause harm. As I don’t think I had ever given myself permission to admit to myself, prior to this class — in the acting of ‘speaking up’, I subject myself to the violence of not being listened to.
Feminist perspectives on silence leave researchers with the conundrum of, 'But when should I speak, then, and when should I stay silent? How can I avoid putting undue burden on others to speak, and ensure I am respecting others’ silence? Who can I speak for, and how do I avoid speaking over?’
I’ve been sitting with these questions, critically reflecting on how they apply to me and how I will respond. A positionality statement, of course: ensuring my personal investment in my research topic, my unique authority to speak on it, and the value of myself doing so, is clear. A critical eye throughout the literature review: taking care to discern the gaps in accounts of intersectionality’s history as a theory, and lend weight to scholars who are already speaking powerfully about those omissions. An ongoing reflexivity through data collection and analysis, particularly when it requires the voices — and silences — of others.
I am realising, though, that in all our discussions of research ethics, of how we account for our good intentions and mitigate possible harms, there is still the underlying assumption that research — knowing — is ultimately good and should be facilitated. That the benefits of knowledge, of filling the silences, is always a noble pursuit. That the academia is a platform and that as researchers, we have power in being able to wield that platform, and therefore the responsibility to work alongside or with marginalised peoples to leverage it. In sum, we must know the story, urgently; the only question at hand is whose lips we should hear it from.
Obviously, I subscribe to these views, at least to some extent. Yet, I worry about our egos as researchers. I worry there is hubris in thinking knowledge — that is, our institutionalised forms of knowledge — is key to change, and that we hold that key. I worry that we prioritise our good intentions to ‘raise awareness’ and ‘amplify voices’ and ‘deepen understanding’ over the harms that can arise from the research process. I worry about our impatience.
Sure, knowledge is power, but it has no impacts until we have the appetite and the resources and the influence to embolden theory into praxis. In that case, when the conditions aren’t right, the benefits arising from generating knowledge may not be worth the costs of gathering it. When the political environment is too hostile, the institutions too unguarded and corrupt and undemocratic, the processes and systems too vulnerable to co-option by neoliberal forces, the capital too sparse — why should marginalised peoples have to give up parts of their souls to you, to inform findings and recommendations that will never find life beyond the page? Why can’t we wait until they have the means (or better yet! support them to develop these means!), and the desire, to use their own voices?
Insisting on knowing, and taking it for granted that it is possible to do so ethically or respectfully (or even, worth the risk of doing so unethically), is a failure to respect silence’s function as resistance. It is a failure to understand that marginalised peoples can simultaneously be forced into silence and choose to be silent at the same time. It neglects to recognise that silence is not only the rejection of the labour of using voice, but the mistrust of others’ capacity to listen — a mistrust that is perhaps still warranted. It erroneously assumes that stories need to be told now, and that the platforms of researchers entitle them to be that voice.
The remedy to the sins of forced silences is not necessarily filling those silences; it is dismantling the violent systems that have created them. We should be willing to remain skeptical of, and interrogate, the capacity of research to achieve that.
Checking your privilege, and being transparent about your intentions, will not always be enough. Sometimes the only ethical thing you can do as a researcher is to shut the fuck up, and let things that are not yours to know and speak remain unknown and unspoken — until the storytellers are ready to fill the silence themselves.
Can the subaltern speak? Absolutely — you just haven’t been listening.
Do the subaltern need you to hear them? Well, if you can’t promise that you will take what you hear and use it in the way they want it to be used, maybe not? Maybe not yet?