The tyranny of silencing

[Image shows a raised fist against a cream wall. The fist is wearing a white cotton half-glove with the words ‘If you’re’ and ‘You’re not’ visible on two different lines, the top in black and the bottom in red, at the bottom underneath a line of fire (the words are part of the quote ‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention’). The cuff of a red and black shirt is just visible.]

If I asked everyone here who had been called ‘humourless’ or ‘too angry’ when they stood up for their beliefs in equality to raise their hands, I imagine we would see a forest of hands. It’s such a familiar situation – stressful, distressing, frustrating, alienating, but so common. Call out a sexist joke? Humourless. Call out racist taunts? Oversensitive. Call out cissexism? Angry over nothing.

People will say that it doesn’t matter, that we are post-oppression, that they don’t actually believe these things, that it’s ironic – no. The fact that these things are seen as acceptable in so many spaces is a powerful indictment of a culture that normalises oppression, that normalises discrimination. When you can say something discriminatory and say it is not oppressive, that is your privilege, that is the kyriarchy speaking. That is a product of a society that has told you – or certain aspects of you – that you have a right to this platform raised on others’ shoulders, and a right not to see the damage your stamping is causing.

Attacking a person for speaking up is pure silencing techniques. But here’s the thing. We don’t call out because it’s fun. We call out because that is worse than the alternative. We believe that it is worse to allow the discrimination to continue than to speak up, disrupt whatever is going on, and put ourselves through a wringer.

Of course sometimes we get angry. For a start, there is a reason we call it oppression; and also, often, privilege will deny itself, will deny our experience, will deny our pain. It is hard not to become angry in that situation. Justified anger is not an excuse for people to tell us that we cannot discuss things because we lack objectivity. That is one of the worst silencing techniques of all, a product of a society marked deep by colonialism that values outsiders’ dispassionate, Othering descriptions of marginalised groups above the lived experiences of the groups themselves.

Anger can be dangerous – and we know this. But we also know that nobody listened when we spoke quietly, when we politely requested a halt to the oppression. Anger is a human emotion, and there is no shame in feeling it, and no shame in using it against the system that caused it rather than allowing it to burn up inside, running like hot lead along the bones and eating away at the person.

A call out is not an attack, even when there is anger in that call out. It is often prompted by an attack. Because here’s why this ‘tone argument’ is so harmful – something said in a polite tone can still be oppressive. For example, if someone tells me that I am my assigned gender, they are attacking me. No matter how quietly they speak, how politely they word it – they are telling me that I do not exist, that they value their own preconceived ideas over my selfhood, that they do not care about me, that I do not know myself. And that is an attack on me, while if there is anger behind my words when I say, ‘That is incorrect, binarist, and cissexist,’ I am not attacking the person speaking, I am attacking their incorrect, prejudiced views. If I was to reply by saying, ‘I hope you die,’ that would be a personal attack – but that’s not a call-out, that’s unacceptable threatening behaviour.

Being angry, being upset, caring about oppression is not wrong. There is a line to walk – since when we are most passionate, we are most inclined to let the views of the kyriarchal parasite in our heads out, and there is a danger of appropriating others’ struggle if the oppression called is not one’s own oppression, and there is a danger in becoming threatening – but it is not the line that others would have us think. It is not the line that others have tried to make us walk to silence us.


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