Rebecca Solnit on Breaking Silence as Our Mightiest Weapon Against Oppression
“We are our stories, stories that can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison.”
By Maria Popova
“To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men,” the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote in her 1914 anthem against silence — an incantation which fomented biologist and writer Rachel Carson’s courage to speak inconvenient truth to power as she catalyzed the environmental movement. “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you,” Audre Lorde admonished on the cusp of another cultural revolution in her influential 1984 treatise on transforming silence into redemptive action. “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,” Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech shortly after Lorde’s landmark essay was published.
No silence is larger, both in age and in scope, nor more demanding of breaking, than the silencing of women’s voices — a millennia-old assault on the integrity of more than half of humankind.
Let me make one thing clear here: We — all of us, of any gender — may have different answers to the questions feminism raises. But if we refuse to engage with the questions themselves, we are culpable not only of cowardice but of complicity in humanity’s oldest cultural crime.
How to dismantle that complicity and transmute it into courage is what Rebecca Solnit explores in an extraordinary essay titled “Silence Is Broken,” found in The Mother of All Questions (public library) — a sweeping collection of essays Solnit describes as “a tour through carnage, a celebration of liberation and solidarity, insight and empathy, and an investigation of the terms and tools with which we might explore all these things.”
Solnit begins by mapping the terra cognita of silence:
Silence is the ocean of the unsaid, the unspeakable, the repressed, the erased, the unheard. It surrounds the scattered islands made up of those allowed to speak and of what can be said and who listens. Silence occurs in many ways for many reasons; each of us has his or her own sea of unspoken words.
Silence, of course, is crucially different from quietude, the latter being the absence of noise and the former the absence of voice. Silence is to quietude what isolation, that weapon of oppression, is to solitude, that wellspring of creative fertility. Defining silence as “what is imposed” and quietude as “what is sought,” Solnit contrasts the two:
The tranquility of a quiet place, of quieting one’s own mind, of a retreat from words and bustle, is acoustically the same as the silence of intimidation or repression but psychically and politically something entirely different. What is unsaid because serenity and introspection are sought is as different from what is not said because the threats are high or the barriers are great as swimming is from drowning. Quiet is to noise as silence is to communication. The quiet of the listener makes room for the speech of others, like the quiet of the reader taking in words on the page, like the white of the paper taking ink.
Silence is what allows people to suffer without recourse, what allows hypocrisies and lies to grow and flourish, crimes to go unpunished. If our voices are essential aspects of our humanity, to be rendered voiceless is to be dehumanized or excluded from one’s humanity.
Echoing Ursula K. Le Guin’s memorable assertion that “words are events, they do things, change things,” Solnit celebrates our mightiest, perhaps our only, mechanism for breaking our silences:
Words bring us together, and silence separates us, leaves us bereft of the help or solidarity or just communion that speech can solicit or elicit.
We are our stories, stories that can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison; we make stories to save ourselves or to trap ourselves or others, stories that lift us up or smash us against the stone wall of our own limits and fears. Liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories. A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.
Noting that “the history of silence is central to women’s history,” Solnit writes:
Violence against women is often against our voices and our stories. It is a refusal of our voices, and of what a voice means: the right to self-determination, to participation, to consent or dissent, to live and participate, to interpret and narrate.
Sometimes just being able to speak, to be heard, to be believed are crucial parts of membership in a family, a community, a society. Sometimes our voices break those things apart; sometimes those things are prisons. And then when words break through unspeakability, what was tolerated by a society sometimes becomes intolerable.
Even those who have been audible have often earned the privilege through strategic silences or the inability to hear certain voices, including their own. The struggle of liberation has been in part to create the conditions for the formerly silenced to speak and be heard.
Half a century after James Baldwin asserted that “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over” in his abiding inquiry into freedom and how we imprison ourselves, Solnit considers how the redemptive reclaiming of systemically muted voices is reconfiguring our world:
If the right to speak, if having credibility, if being heard is a kind of wealth, that wealth is now being redistributed. There has long been an elite with audibility and credibility, an underclass of the voiceless. As the wealth is redistributed, the stunned incomprehension of the elites erupts over and over again, a fury and disbelief that this woman or child dared to speak up, that people deigned to believe her, that her voice counts for something, that her truth may end a powerful man’s reign. These voices, heard, upend power relations.
Who is heard and who is not defines the status quo. Those who embody it, often at the cost of extraordinary silences with themselves, move to the center; those who embody what is not heard or what violates those who rise on silence are cast out. By redefining whose voice is valued, we redefine our society and its values.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s incisive treatise on how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression, Solnit argues that “silence is the universal condition of oppression” and considers the complex cultural matrix on which various sets of oppressive silences intersect:
The category women is a long boulevard that intersects with many other avenues, including class, race, poverty and wealth. Traveling this boulevard means crossing others, and it never means that the city of silence has only one street or one route through it that matters. It is now useful to question the categories of male and female, but it’s also useful to remember that misogyny is based on a devout belief in the reality of those categories (or is an attempt to reinforce them by demonstrating the proper role of each gender)… It was in opposition to slavery that American feminism arose, born at the intersection. Elizabeth Cady Stanton went to the World’s Antislavery Convention in London in 1840, one of many women abolitionists who traveled to participate, only to find that they could not be seated and could not speak. Even people who considered themselves champions of the oppressed could not see what was oppressive about an order so old it was perceived as natural. A controversy arose. Stanton wrote in her autobiography of the remarkable women gathered there, who were “all compelled to listen in silence to the masculine platitudes on women’s sphere.” She went home furious, and that fury at being silenced and shut out, and the insight that resulted, gave rise to the first women’s rights movement.
Indeed, the history of breaking silence is the history of insurgent solidarity with the silenced on behalf of those who have voice. Without the silence-shattering letter of solidarity which sixteen of the twentieth century’s most prominent white poets wrote after Amiri Baraka was brutalized by racial violence, he might have perished as another black man swallowed by the systemic injustice of the prison system instead of becoming one of the world’s most influential poets.
Solnit considers this essential human task of those who have voice in relation to those who are silenced:
Empathy is a narrative we tell ourselves to make other people real to us, to feel for and with them, and thereby to extend and enlarge and open ourselves. To be without empathy is to have shut down or killed off some part of yourself and your humanity, to have protected yourself from some kind of vulnerability. Silencing, or refusing to hear, breaks this social contract of recognizing another’s humanity and our connectedness.
Our humanity is made out of stories or, in the absence of words and narratives, out of imagination: that which I did not literally feel, because it happened to you and not to me, I can imagine as though it were me, or care about it though it was not me. Thus we are connected, thus we are not separate. Those stories can be killed into silence, and the voices that might breed empathy silenced, discredited, censored, rendered unspeakable, unhearable. Discrimination is training in not identifying or empathizing with someone because they are different in some way, in believing the differences mean everything and common humanity nothing.
A supreme failure of empathy, Solnit suggests, is the refusal to speak up for those who are shamed or suppressed from speaking for themselves:
Individuals and societies serve power and the powerful by refusing to speak and bear witness.
Echoing Susan Sontag’s insistence that “courage is as contagious as fear,” Solnit adds:
Silence and shame are contagious; so are courage and speech. Even now, when women begin to speak of their experience, others step forward to bolster the earlier speaker and to share their own experience. A brick is knocked loose, another one; a dam breaks, the waters rush forth.
With her parallel willingness to name our human follies with robust lucidity and to welcome our highest potential with unsentimental optimism, Solnit considers our most fertile frontier of persistence and resistance to the silencing of our own voices and those around us:
Every day each of us invents the world and the self who meets that world, opens up or closes down space for others within that. Silence is forever being broken, and then like waves lapping over the footprints, the sandcastles and washed-up shells and seaweed, silence rises again.
Exactly half a century after the repentant poet Laura (Riding) Jackson wrote that “the task of truth is divided among us, to the number of us,” and that “we must grasp [it] with the tongs of our individual littleness [and] take the measure of it with what we are,” Solnit adds:
The task of calling things by their true names, of telling the truth to the best of our abilities, of knowing how we got here, of listening particularly to those who have been silenced in the past, of seeing how the myriad stories fit together and break apart, of using any privilege we may have been handed to undo privilege or expand its scope is each of our tasks. It’s how we make the world.
The Mother of All Questions is a sobering and mobilizing read in its slim, potent entirety. Complement it with Shankar Vedantam on the unconscious biases that bedevil even the best-intentioned of us, then revisit Solnit on living with intelligent hope in dispiriting times, how maps can oppress and liberate, and walking as an act of rebellion.
Published March 20, 2017