Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Value of Silence

Today I’m going to talk about the value of silence

Yes, privileged folks, flock around, I be SILENCING YOU, oh how very mean! How very mean indeed! Please clutch your fee-fees and form an orderly queue to tell us how oppressed and persecuted you are.

Except not, of course, because minorities don’t really have the institutional power to actually silence people; so instead I’ll settle praising silence.

Because sometimes silence is, indeed, golden. It’s precious and it’s something we should value. And that’s hard to do – it’s even harder to say or advocate. That spectre of “silencing” will raise it’s ugly head. We live in a time in many places where “freedom of speech” is squealed so often (and so inaccurately) it no longer has meaning; “censorship” is howled whenever anyone refuses to offer a platform or dares to criticise what is said. With the internet, we have even more chances to speak  and be heard - in many ways and in many places we truly do have a thousand voices all speaking at once.

Such a shame that 950 of them are speaking such bullshit.

So eager are people, especially the privileged who are so used to dominating discussions, to protect their right to speak that they often don’t question whether they actually have anything relevant to say – or the standing to speak in a discussion and rarely does this matter more than when we are talking about marginalised people where privileged people truly do need to learn the value of silence.

It should go without saying the most basic of silences – we don’t need you to speak for us and GBLT voices should be the ones raised to speak about GBLT people. That doesn’t mean never speak up, don’t oppose bigotry and don’t support us. But it means you aren’t the spokespeople, you aren’t the experts. You shouldn’t be the ones writing books on what slurs mean, or what it means to be GBLT, what it’s like to live as one of us or what it’s like to face homophobia or transphobia. You shouldn’t be the spokesperson at the conference or the convention, you shouldn’t be the “expert” called upon and straight people shouldn’t be the primary source when trying to learn about GBLT people. You certainly shouldn’t be posing as us and passing yourself off as “authentic”.

Some discussions do not need your opinions. If a group of GBLT people are discussing something – maybe their priorities, or focus of their attention, maybe their opinion on the actions of another GBLT person and their activism, maybe the use of various terminology or any number of discussions or arguments we could be having – then we don’t need your opinion or input. Really. You do not have the insight to enter the conversation, the lived experience to have and knowledgeable contribution. It would be like me running up to Steven Hawking and giving him my not-even-remotely-learned opinion on quantum physics (or, for that matter, any physics). Why should he listen to my ignorant drivel? Most sensible people would say he shouldn’t. So why should we listen to yours? Especially if you’re entering our ongoing discussion.

This is especially true of in-house discussions, every marginalised group has issues that they’re hashing out and debating, where there are strong differences of opinion and even internal strife. Why are you stepping into that? Why are you inserting yourself into a family discussion? What do you honestly think you can add here? It is the height of arrogance to insert yourself here! Some things don’t involve you, some things are too complex for an outsider’s opinion to have relevance .

You should definitely consider silence if you’re going to try and use a GBLT person’s words against another GBLT person. Picking and choosing those that will support what you wish to believe is the very height of privilege and a terrible habit from so many allies. I had the recently distasteful experience of watching a group of straight people mobbing a gay person with much tut-tutting and criticism for publicly thanking straight people who supported equality in a big, gushing manner. Now, I’m not a fan of handing out ally cookies either - but I’m far less of a fan of straight folks telling a gay person that they’re doing pro-GBLT activism wrong.

If you are presuming to correct, criticise – or even advise - a GBLT person on how they’re managing their oppression, how they’re dealing with the closet, how they’re pursuing activism or, frankly, about any other GBLT issue then don't. We are the experts in our own lives and there’s no shortage of arrogant and ignorant “advice” from straight, cis folks out there. We certainly don’t need more straight, cis policing, we’ve had more than enough of that.

If we’re discussing some element of prejudice or bigotry and feel a desperate need to tell us how you/your church/your party/your canasta circle isn’t like that, then you could probably do with a hefty dose of silence as well. If you’re not like that, fine, take comfort in the fact. But we’re talking about something, not taking the time to assure straight, cis people that they’re a “good ally.” In fact, if you’re doing anything that primarily serves to show off your fandabidosy ally credentials, you might want to take a double dose of that silence and maybe throw in a slap upside the head.

If you’re commenting on a GBLT issue and for some reason the entire discussion becomes way more about you than about GBLT person, you’ve probably derailed towards your ego-train; next time you might want to stop at the Silence station and get off there.

And, utter pet hate, if you come across people discussing, posting about or otherwise examining a GBLT issue, don’t swoop in and talk about something else. That doesn’t mean your something else isn’t important – but find a time and a place, don’t derail what we’re talking about. And certainly don’t tell us we should be talking about something else – we’re probably talking about this for a reason and you may have missed that and be stomping all over it with your privilege. And if you must use our discussion as a jumping off point for your own issues, then for gods’ sake just launch into your discussion – don’t start with “these GBLT people were talking about this so I thought…” because it just sounds like you listened to us talking, decided you couldn’t be bothered with all that silly GBLT stuff and just skimmed off what you were interested in.

Stop. Think. Sometimes silence truly is the best option.

It has been said before that opinions are like arseholes, everyone has one – well sometimes it seems everyone is just so eager to share theirs when they would be better served keeping their backsides covered. Before privileged people speak on margainlisation there needs to be more questioning of WHY they’re speaking – and who are the privileged speaking for? The marginalised? Or themselves – be it for ego, attention, absolution or distraction?

This piece originally appeared at womanist musings