Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Silence

The insightful Thinking Girl is guest-blogging at another favorite blog of mine, Slant Truth. Talk about a power couple! But something distressed me about her opening post, and I want to hash it out.

The post is about how White women ought to respond when women of color say they feel marginalized or suppressed by something they say.
I will always listen to and believe a woman of colour when she says that she feels marginalized by something a white feminist has said or written. When a woman of colour says something is silencing her, erasing her, marginalizing her, I will believe her, because who better than she to know? I will not invalidate her experience by saying she is overly sensitive and too emotional. I will not tell her to calm down, that she is blowing things out of proportion, that she is taking things to personally, that she needs to get some perspective. I will not wait until I have all the “facts” of the matter. I will not remain neutral. I will not try to define the terms and the tone of the discussion, and try to silence her dissent. I will not deny anything. I will not believe that white privilege is a defense.

I will listen and hear. I will believe her. I will calm down and stop being overly sensitive. I will not blow things out of proportion and take things personally. I will try to see things from her perspective. I will try to silence my dissent. I will give her space and opportunity to speak for herself. I will support her. PERIOD. NO QUESTIONS. Why? Because she knows by now what marginalizes her, what hurts her, what silences her, what erases her. Because my whiteness blinds me sometimes, and when that happens I can’t trust myself. And because, that’s what allies do.

Again, I find something about this very disconcerting, and I want to develop on this theme a little bit.

Now, it may be that TG is only making the relatively stock argument that White people need to stop and listen to minority claims of marginalization, rather than immediately going into shell mode. That I have no qualms with whatsoever--that's just true. But TG seems to be stepping beyond that. The underlying assumption here is that, no matter what we do, somebody has to be silent. TG is saying that, rather than try and silence women of color when they proclaim hurt, "I will try to silence my dissent." It's either/or. It's zero-sum. There is no room for conversation. The feelings TG has--of dissent, of sensitivity, her "reactions" that she wants to stifle--all need to be silenced. They cannot and should not be aired out.

Now, if coerced silence is an inevitable part of the reality we live in, then I guess I agree. If somebody has to be silenced, it should be White women rather than women of color, if for no other reason than distributional justice issues. And on the level of pure reaction (as opposed to action), I want to say that I don't disagree with her at all--if someone says that a given statement or position marginalizes them, that's entirely unfalsifiable. Nobody has more authority than the speaker to say what hurts them, and thus, I too will believe when people say a stance or statement erases them.

But I don't like the reality TG is drawing. And I don't think it's inevitable. And I think that TG's formulation here starts to fall apart as we move deeper into progressivism--the part that demands action and change and reform.

Before I go further though, I should state a bias. As a Jew, I feel acutely marginalized by a lot of the discourse on Israel stemming from the left. And when I try and point this out, I am quite often (not always, but often) shot down as being over-sensitive, trying to "play the anti-semitism card", and other such rhetorical moves. My concerns are not taken seriously, and the perpetrators express little to no interest in examining how they may be operating within anti-Semitic paradigms or worldviews that do real damage to me and mine. In other words, I don't see this same commitment by the left in letting the marginalized define what erases them when the subject is Jews. Undoubtedly, this influences my thinking, because it damages my perception of the good-faithness of the argument. I'm hurt here because it seems, to me, that the left cares only about the pain of some groups, but is quite willing to lapse right back into the same damaging modes of discourse when it's my body the line. And when it comes to global anti-Semitic violence, my body is on the line in a very literal way. If I'm reading TG too harshly because of that, I apologize.

But back to the main.

First of all, I should note that TG's formulation, on face, only works in dialogue between groups whose relative position in social hierarchies is unambiguous. White women are clearly higher than Black women. But the formulation does not give any guidance on how to mediate conflicts between two groups whose relative social position is not clear--whose oppressions are on different axes. Blacks and Jews, or Black men and White women. For these groups, TG's position would seem to imply that discussion is impossible. As TG seems to recognize, in many of the situations we're talking about, both sides feel in some way marginalized or suppressed. If TG is right, though, then one of those sentiments has to give (be silenced). Her standard for deciding who has to stay silent is based on relative social position, which doesn't apply in these cases--giving us a situation where groups simply won't be able to converse at all. The only way to break the stalemate would be to engage in an endless (and, I believe, futile) duel over who is lower on the social chain. I reject that grim position--I don't believe that respect for my friend's narrative requires the silencing of my own. We can and must hear both.

Second, TG's formulation might ironically serve as an excuse for political passivity. Her stance, she says, "is what allies do." Perhaps. But allies do more than that. We have to press for changes in policy. In attitudes, in outlooks, in behaviors. This isn't just about raising consciousness--it's about enacting real change in the real world. And here, TG's position could be paralyzing, for two reasons.

1) It offers no guidance on how to mediate between conflicting narratives of marginalization from within the same group. I've talked with Black friends who have told me that people who oppose affirmative action make them feel marked, like their qualifications and worth are being questioned. I believe them--why wouldn't I? Who is better to tell me what makes them feel marginalized than they? But then, I've also had Black friends who have said that supporting affirmative action makes them feel marginalized, like they're tokens, like I'm implying they couldn't make it here on merit alone. And I believe them too--who is better to tell me what makes them feel marginalized than they?

That's fine as far as it goes--my empathy is not bounded, and I am quite willing to allow both sides to define the facets of their own existence. But at the level of policy, I'm forced to make a choice. I have to do something. I can't both support and oppose affirmative action at the same time. If I'm to do something to try and remedy said marginalization, I'm going to have to dive deeper into this discussion than merely nodding my head to both sides of it.

2) Making a policy commitment requires me to make an autonomous choice. I can't dodge out of my responsibility to engage in my own cognitive faculties in the endeavor. I'm willing to grant other people's views persuasive authority--sometimes very persuasive. But I'm not comfortable with completely off-shoring my own decision-making obligations. If I have a concern about a given position held by a friend of color, that concern needs to enter into the discussion. That doesn't mean I have deny their narrative of hurt or marginalization. Their experience is, as TG has said and I affirm, their own, and nobody has the right to take it from them. But political decisions have consequences that extend beyond individual experiences. On me, or on my friends or loved ones. These have the right to be heard as well. I see no reason why, if their bodies are implicated in a debate, their voices need silencing. Their feelings of marginalization are their own as well. Their interests, concerns, hopes, and fears all have value in our discourse, and need to be aired.

Democratic justice requires the voices of all its participants--and I don't believe a radical feminist or anti-racist position needs us to permanently "silence our dissent" in any case. Defer it, maybe, condition it, perhaps, show respect for the narrative we are conflicting with, definitely. But silence it? That disturbs me in a very serious way. Fundamentally, I reject the very idea that discourse is a zero-sum game. I believe we can affirm the legitimacy of all experiences. We can--and must--respect what the majority is feeling without reifying White supremacy. We can--and must--respect what the minority is feeling without simply inverting the hierarchy of silence.

Put simply: If I'm talking to a Black friend of mine, and she tells me that affirmative action stigmatizes her, I have no right to tell her otherwise. Her life and experience is her own. But the corollary to that is not--cannot be--that I am bound to oppose affirmative action. Democratic justice requires a more searching inquiry than that--one in which all voices, dominant or subordinated, majority or minority, can contribute and in which all concerns have weight.

1 comment:

Mark said...

You're an alien. You write:

If I'm talking to a Black friend of mine, and she tells me that affirmative action stigmatizes her,...

If anybody said to me a particular action or policy "stigmatized" them, I think I'd only be able to offer a blank stare. I have no clue what that would mean. You hang out with people who talk like that?