There are many reasons to be silent.
Violence (or the threat of violence) is one reason for silence. When cartoonists are murdered for satire and young school girls are kidnapped or murdered for daring to go to school, the risk of speaking up becomes too great for many people.
Sometimes the violence backfires and the voices become stronger – as in the case of Charlie Hebdo, now publishing three million copies when their normal print run was 60,000. Why? Because those with power and influence stepped in to show support for those whose voices were temporarily silenced. If the world had ignored that violence and millions of people – including many world leaders – hadn’t marched in the streets, would there have been the same outcome? If these twelve dead worked for a small publication in Somalia or Myanmar would we have paid as much attention? I doubt it.
Far too many times (especially when the world mostly ignores their plight, as in Nigeria) violence succeeds and fewer people speak up, fewer people are educated, and the perpetrators of the violence have control.
Violence has long been a tool for the silencing of the dissenting voice. Slaves were tortured or murdered for daring to speak up against their owners. Women were burned at the stake for daring to challenge the dominant culture. Even my own ancestors – the Mennonites – were tortured and murdered for their faith and pacifism.
Most likely every single one of us could look back through our lineage and find at least one period in time when our ancestors were subjected to violence. Some of us still live with that reality day to day.
There is no question that the fear of violence is a powerful force for keeping people silent. It still happens in families where there is abuse and in countries where they flog bloggers for speaking out.
Few of the people who read this article will be subjected to flogging or torture for what we say or write online, and yet… there are many of us who remain silent even when we feel strongly that we should speak out.
Why? Why do we remain silent when we see injustice in our workplaces? Why do we turn the other way when we see someone being bullied? Why do we hesitate to speak when we know there’s a better way to do things?
- Because we have a memory of violence in our bones. The more I learn about trauma the more I realize that it affects us in much more subtle and insidious ways than we understand. Some of us have experienced trauma and are easily triggered, but even if we never experienced trauma in our own lifetimes, it can be passed down to us through our DNA. Your ancestors’ trauma may still be causing fear in your own life. Witnessing the trauma of other people subjected to violence may be triggering ancient fear in all of us, causing us to remain silent.
- Because our brains don’t understand fear. The most ancient part of our brains – the “reptilian brain”, which hasn’t evolved since we were living in caves and discovering fire – is adapted for fight or flight. That part of our brain sees all threats as predators, and so it triggers our instinct to survive. Our lives are much different from our ancestors, and yet there’s a part of our brains that still seeks to protect us from woolly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers. When our fear of being rejected by a family member for speaking out feels the same as the fear of a sabre-toothed tiger, our reaction is often much stronger than it needs to be.
- Because those who want to keep us silent have learned more subtle ways to do so. In most of the countries where we live, it is no longer acceptable to flog bloggers, but that doesn’t mean we’re not being silenced. Women have been silenced, for example, by being taught that their ideas are silly and irrelevant. Marginalized people have been silenced by being given less access to education. Those with unconventional ideas have been “gaslighted” – gradually convinced that they are crazy for what they believe.
- Because we have created an “every man for himself” culture where those who speak out are often not supported for their courage. We’re all trying to thrive in this competitive environment, and so we feel threatened by other people’s success or courage. When I asked on Facebook what keeps people silent, one of the responses (from a blogger) was about the kinds of haters that show up even in what should be supportive environments. In motherhood forums, for example, people get so caught in internal battles (like whether it is better to be a working-away-from-home parent or a stay-at-home parent) that they forget that they would be much stronger in advocating for positive change in the world if they found a way to work together and support each other. It is much more difficult to speak out when we know we’ll be standing alone.
- Because we don’t understand power and privilege. Those who have access to both power and privilege are often surprised when others remain silent. “Why wouldn’t they just speak up?” they say, as though that were the simplest thing in the world to do. It may be a simple thing, if you have never been oppressed or silenced, but if you’ve been taught that your voice has no value because you are “a woman, an Indian, a person of colour, a lesbian, a Muslim, etc.”, then the courage it takes to speak is exponentially greater. Years and years of conditioning that convinces a person of their inherent lack of value cannot be easily undone.
Several years ago, I visited a village in the poorest part of India. Though I’d traveled in several poor regions in Bangladesh, India, and a few African countries before that, this was the most depressing place I’d ever visited. This was a makeshift village populated by the Musahar people who lived at the edges of fields where they sometimes were hired by the landowners as day labourers but otherwise had to scrounge for their food (sometimes stealing grain from rats – which was why they’d come to be known as “rat eaters”).
There was a look of deadness in the eyes of the people there – a hopelessness and sense of fatalism. Our local hosts told us that these were the most marginalized people in the whole country. They were the lowest tribe of the lowest caste and so everyone in the village had been raised to believe that they had no more value than the rats that ran through their village.
There was a school not far from the village, but we could find only one boy who attended that school. Though everyone had access to the school, none of the parents were convinced their children were worthy of it.
It was a powerful lesson in what oppression and marginalization can do to people. In other equally poor villages (in Ethiopia, for example) I’d still noticed a sense of pride in the people. The Musahar people showed no sense of pride or self-worth. Essentially, they had been “gaslighted” to believe they were worthless and could ask for no more than what they had.
The next day, my traveling companions and I took a rest day instead of visiting another village. We had enough footage for the documentary we were working on and we needed a break from what was an emotionally exhausting trip.
My colleague, however, opted to visit the second village. He came back to the hotel with a fascinating story. In the second village, a local NGO had been working with the people to educate them about their rights as citizens of India. It hadn’t taken long and these people had a very different outlook on their lives and their values. They were beginning to rally, challenging their local government representatives to give them access to the welfare programs that should have been everyone’s rights (but that people in the first village had never been told about by the corrupt politicians who took what should have been given to the villagers). On the way back to the hotel, in fact, he’d been stopped by a demonstration where the body of a man who’d died of starvation had been laid out on the street to block traffic and call attention to the plight of the Musahar people.
The people in the second village were slowly beginning to understand that they were human and had a right to dignity and survival.
In the coaching and personal growth world that I now find myself in, there is much said about “finding our voices”, “stepping into our power”, and “claiming our sovereignty”. Those are all important ideas, and I speak of them in my work, but I believe that there is work that we need to do before any of those things are possible. Like the Musahar people, those who have been silenced need to be taught of their own value and their own capacity for change before they can be expected to impact positive change.
First we need to take a close look at the root causes of the fear that keeps us silent before we’ll be able to change the future.
When we begin to understand power and privilege, when we find practices that help us heal our ancient trauma, when we retrain our brains so that they don’t revert to their most primal conditioning, and when we find supportive communities that will encourage us in our attempts at courage, then we are ready to step into our power and speak with our strongest voices.
Like the Musahar, we need to work on understanding our own value and then we need to work together to have our voices heard.
These are some of the thoughts on my mind as I consider offering another coaching circle based on Pathfinder and/or Lead with Your Wild Heart. If you are interested in joining such a circle, please contact me.
Also, if you are longing to understand your own fear so that you can step forward with courage, consider joining me and Desiree Adaway at Engage!