On a news program recently, I heard a judge being quoted as saying that, in deciding the sentence for someone who’d been charged with a crime, he was influenced by neither emotions nor public opinion. And my response was… REALLY?! Is such a thing even possible? I think it would take some kind of unnatural, non-human capacity for detachment to be influenced by neither your emotions nor public opinion. (Or perhaps sometimes it’s sociopathic or narcissistic personality disorder?) We are all influenced, in big and little ways, every single day, even when we’re not conscious of the influence.
Back when I used to teach university courses in communications and public relations, I would teach my students to pay special attention to the voices and ideas that most influenced them. A final assignment in my Writing for Public Relations classes was to do a presentation on one piece of writing that had influenced them in their lives. It could be a book, a movie script, an advertisement, or even a poster. I wanted them to at least be conscious of when and how they were being influenced, and, as they became public relations professionals themselves, I hoped that they would make conscious choices to use their influence wisely and not put unnecessary propaganda into the world. (I also taught them the difference between propaganda and persuasion.) Many of the students had never considered who they were most influenced by.
Part of the reason why I’m taking the sabbatical and social media break that I’m currently on is that I want to be more conscious of the voices I allow in to influence me. Sometimes, when I’m not paying enough attention to how much I’m online, social media feels like a whole lot of noise, and in the midst of that noise, I can hardly hear my own voice. I start to feel like I’m in a boat without an oar and I’m just drifting along on the current of public opinion, not choosing my own direction.
It’s an easy thing to slip into, and it can happen for a lot of reasons. Sometimes it happens because I’m just too tired or emotionally drained to make conscious choices and I find myself picking up my phone like a drug that comforts me in my exhaustion. Sometimes it happens because I’m feeling disconnected or abandoned and I want to renew my feelings of connection with people (especially in a pandemic). Sometimes I’m just bored and slip into mindless behaviour.
I am not against social media, by any stretch. I value the very real friendships it has made possible in my life, and I acknowledge the fact that it has helped me grow a thriving business. It would be hypocritical to turn my nose up at it after all of the value that it has brought.
But I want to live in a conscious relationship with social media. I want to be conscious of when it feeds me and when it harms me. I want to witness when I feel like it’s sucking me in almost without my consent. I want to notice when I’m feeling manipulated by the algorithms and when I’m making choices I wouldn’t otherwise make because I’ve been unconsciously influenced.
I especially want to be conscious of when it makes me lose connection with my own voice and the voices of people who matter the most to me. My voice is important to me and I want it to ring clear and true and full of integrity.
This summer, I am intentionally focusing on the relationships that happen offline – with my daughters, my friends, my family, and myself. I am doing a kind of social media detox to see if I think and feel differently when I’m not being fed with a constant stream of other people’s opinions. I’m going to spend a lot of time listening to myself and to those who sit with me for long, slow conversations over campfires. I’ll also read books, but only those that feel nourishing to me and don’t take me down a river I don’t want to float along.
It doesn’t mean I won’t be influenced by voices other than my own. That seems like an impossible thing to achieve (and not necessarily a desirable one, because it borders on narcissism). But it means that when I AM influenced, I’m doing so consciously and with my full consent.
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!