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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 1997

The Subtleties of Silence Can Be Deafening

Jennifer Bankier

Social justice debates should not be derailed by inappropriate use of silencing rhetoric.

"You are silencing me." This vague rhetoric is infinitely adaptable. It can be used both to challenge oppression and to perpetrate it.

We would all condemn some forms of silencing. We all agree it was wrong for Marc Lépine to permanently silence the voices of 14 women at the University of Montreal's École Polytechnique, or for Valery Fabrikant to silence his colleagues at Concordia University by killing them.

Institutional power can also be abused in order to silence people through threats to jobs, education, or other important needs. Senior administrators have power over academics. Academics have power over students as evaluators and referees, and over each other through appointments, reappointments, tenure and promotions processes. Students have power over academics through teaching evaluations.

These powers can be used to punish unpopular speakers who confront the establishment, and fear of such abuse may discourage others from speaking. There are more precise words than "silencing" to refer to these problems -- inequality of power, retaliation, intimidation, academic freedom violation, discrimination, unfair procedures.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric of silencing can also be abused, unintentionally or otherwise, by members of advantaged groups. This can be done in ways that effectively prevent members of disadvantaged groups from naming the problems and people who oppress them.

For example, when members of a disadvantaged group attempt to talk fully and frankly about their experiences and analyses of discrimination to a mixed audience, members of the advantaged group may angrily accuse the disadvantaged people, and their allies, of silencing them.

This reaction against criticism seems to arise out of fear of loss of self-esteem. The difficulties people have in dealing with criticism often lead those criticized to end the discussion. This prevents an objective consideration of the merits of the analysis put forward by the disadvantaged.

Often even the most careful attempts by disadvantaged people to discuss specific problems in terms of differential impact or system-based discrimination can be reflexively transformed by advantaged people into accusations of bad intent, malice and ill-will.

Any constraints to avoid criticism will in fact silence members of disadvantaged groups by prohibiting all discussion of discrimination unless it takes place at a high level of abstraction without any reference to particular people, problems or places.

Moreover, meaningful analysis of discrimination requires analysis both of the negative impact of present practices on members of disadvantaged groups, and the positive impact or benefits of the status quo for members of advantaged groups.

For example, working people must be free to analyze how capitalism benefits capitalists at the expense of workers. White women should be free to analyze how a patriarchal system benefits White men. Black and Aboriginal peoples should be able to discuss how White men and women benefit from and perpetuate their subordination in Canada.

If we are ever to achieve social justice, these and other groups must be free to express these analyses both at an abstract level, and more particularly to identify and remedy problems within the universities or workplaces where they actually live their lives.

They should even be free to suggest that some advantaged people are discriminating intentionally in order to protect or extend existing powers and privileges, since intentional self-interested discrimination will be harder to eradicate than unintentional discrimination based on ignorance and habit.

These important debates should not be derailed by inappropriate use of silencing rhetoric that would deny members of disadvantaged groups the right to raise important issues unless they can do the impossible by framing these issues in ways that will be neither hurtful nor critical of advantaged people.

If advantaged people do not agree with these analyses they should not hide behind a shield of silencing rhetoric, but rather should have the courage of their convictions, and enter the debate by addressing issues on their merits.

As part of the process of defining a position to be expressed, members of advantaged groups should exercise some self-discipline and put their minds to the merits of the critiques put forward by disadvantaged groups, instead of reacting through a knee-jerk process of denial of personal fault and personal benefit.

To this point, the analysis has been general, referring to all advantaged and disadvantaged groups. But let us look more specifically at people who are disadvantaged in some ways and advantaged in others. Consider, for example, White women who are disadvantaged as White women with respect to White men, but advantaged as White women with respect to Black, Aboriginal, Asian and other racial minority men and women.

Most of the White female readership would agree with the analysis above as it applies to the efforts of some White male academics and students to silence our efforts to discuss sexism in the academy through silencing rhetoric.

It is troubling, therefore, that some of us feel free to ourselves use the rhetoric of silencing in an effort to silence racial minority men and women when they try to raise issues of racism with respect to our own behaviour, power, analyses, and practices as White women.

If we expect White men to listen to our analyses of sexual inequality without retaliation, sanctions, or the use of the rhetoric of silencing to prevent us from speaking, then we must practice what we preach and exercise a similar self-discipline when we are criticized, for example, by Aboriginal, Black or Asian men and women.

This process may be painful for us -- as it is for White men -- but this pain and self-discipline are necessary prerequisites to the creation of a just and equitable environment within Canadian universities. We need many, diverse voices speaking frankly about their experiences, not universal "sounds of silence" produced by inappropriate use of silencing rhetoric.

Jennifer Bankier is Chair of CAUT's Status of Women Committee.