The Power of Silence

Speaking up is a big issue with regards to social justice and activism. It is a common belief that those who are silent during times of injustice are taking the side of the oppressor, but authors Netta Avineri, Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein, Robin Conley, Mariam Durrani, and Kathleen Riley from the Society for Linguistic Anthropology dispute the simplicity of this claim in their article “Silent Meditation: Speech, Power, and Social Justice.”

One problem with the claim that speaking up is necessary is that it leads to an increase in slacktivism. When people write blog posts online or share an article on their news feed, they tend to believe too quickly that they are doing something productive for the cause, and therefore they fall into the trap of thinking it is enough instead of wondering what more they can do to help.

Also, sometimes the ways in which people speak up about oppressed groups can end up silencing other oppressed groups as a result. This is why some Muslim-Americans were resistant to the Black Lives Matter movement because they didn’t feel like they were getting the same support for their own problems. This is an inevitable issue with those kinds of hashtags.

There is also the argument that silence can actually be an act of rebellion when it is expected that an oppressed person speak, such as when someone who is being arrested chooses to exercise his right to remain silent, or when a rape victim refuses to tell a judge what she was wearing. Plus, the recent increase in die-ins as a form of protest proves that being silent in solidarity can actually be a major form of protest.

Finally, silence can actually be an important tool for those who are trying to be allies to social justice movements. Although a part of being a good ally is about amplifying the voices of the oppressed, it is also important to spend a lot of time listening. From an anthropological perspective, this strategy is important because you cannot even begin to understand others’ struggles or cultures unless you go into the learning experience highly aware of the fact that you don’t know anything.

Overall, this article raises several important objections to the assertion that speaking up is all that matters in social justice, and it challenges the notion that silence is always problematic.