• Praxis
  • Your Silence Will Not Protect You

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The day I ended my silence

Three years ago, I decided to embark on an experiment in personal development by making a one year commitment to writing and publishing a new blog post every day. I wanted to see what would become of me if I forced myself to share my thoughts with the world irrespective of what mood I was in or what kind of day I had.
I learned many lessons that year. In fact, I grew from the experience so much that I extended my experiment to three years. There were many fears and concerns that gripped me throughout that time. For starters, I feared the possibility of not being able to come up with something to say every single day. “Surely, I would run out of ideas,” I thought. Secondly, I feared that I would ruin any hopes of ever being respected as a communicator. My reasoning was that it was impossible to write something that was truly worth reading all the time. I knew that more than a few bad/mediocre posts were inevitable. It’s one thing to write everyday, it’s another thing to publish everyday. Would my reputation and ego be able to withstand my failure to write well 100% of the time?
Yet, my biggest fear of all was not that I’d run out of words nor that my words would lack the sophistication of truly good writers. My biggest fear was that my words would offend. What if I anger someone by criticizing a cherished idea of theirs? What if I express convictions that disappoint the people I love? What if I express doubts that make me appear unstable or irreverent? What if I swear and my dad sees it? There wasn’t a day that went by without me having to wrestle with questions of this sort. And to be honest, I can’t say that I’ve reached some state of writer’s Nirvana where I no longer have to deal with these demons of self-doubt.

Freedom is a voice

Thankfully, I am not the first writer in history to have struggled with such concerns. Thankfully, there have been other voices that have found the strength to put the pen to the pad in spite of their vulnerabilities. One of those writers was the poet Audre Lorde. Her decision to speak gave me permission to do the same. “Your silence will not protect you,” she whispered to me through written words on a page that will long outlive her brief time on this Earth. In Sister Outsider and The Cancer Journals, Audre shares the following words she delivered in a talk she gave in 1977:

I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect. Less than two months ago, I was told by my two doctors, one female and one male, that I would have to have breast surgery, and that there was a 60 to 80 percent chance that the tumor was malignant.
In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my own mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for in my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed, it would have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly, now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words. And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength.
I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.
What are the words you do not have yet? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language.”
And, of course, I am afraid– you can hear it in my voice– because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation and that always seems fraught with danger. But my daughter, when I told her of our topic and my difficulty with it, said, “tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside of you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth.”
I began to ask each time: “What’s the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?” Unlike women in other countries, our breaking silence is unlikely to have us jailed, “disappeared” or run off the road at night. Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever.
Next time, ask: What’s the worst that will happen? Then push yourself a little further than you dare. Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. And the world won’t end.
And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don’t miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And you will still flirt and paint your nails, dress up and party, because, as I think Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.

The Illusion of Safety

We fear speaking up because we imagine there is some great social price to pay for our honesty. If our ideas and insights strike others as being self-evident, perhaps they will sarcastically call us “captain obvious.” If our convictions seem a bit strong, perhaps others will label us “bull-headed, dogmatic, and close-minded.” If our opinions contradict the consensus reality of mainstream thinking, perhaps we’ll be stigmatized as “weirdos, pesudo-intellectuals,” or, even worse, “conspiracy theorists.” If our complaints disrupt people’s comfort and convenience, perhaps we’ll be branded as “troublemakers.”
The bad news is that our suspicions are true. If you speak up on any issue, there are at least two things that are guaranteed to happen:
1) You will be misunderstood.
2) You will be correctly understood and still negatively judged for what you say.
The good news is that the same outcome is true for those who remain silent. If you censor your true feelings on any issue,
1) You will be misunderstood.
2) You will be correctly understood and still negatively judged for what you didn’t say.
In Follow Your Arrow, Kacey Musgrave illustrates this inherently offensive nature of self-expression:

If you save yourself for marriage
You’re a bore
If you don’t save yourself for marriage
You’re a whore-able person
If you won’t have a drink
Then you’re a prude
But they’ll call you a drunk
As soon as you down the first one
If you can’t lose the weight
Then you’re just fat
But if you lose too much
Then you’re on crack
You’re damned if you do
And you’re damned if you don’t
If you don’t go to church
You’ll go to hell
If you’re the first one
On the front row
You’re self-righteous
Son of a-
Can’t win for losing
You just disappoint ‘em

What are the words you do not yet speak? Zora Neale Hurston warned, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” A life of self-censorship provides no luxuries that can compensate for the losses we endure by suffocating our convictions. Self-expression is costly, but self-negation is even more expensive. Being silent may help you mitigate the criticism of those who take offense with what you say, but it wont shelter you from the negative judgment of those who believe it is your obligation to speak up. The instant you base the value of your words on the absence of social disapproval, you become a perpetually frustrated player in a zero-sum game.  There is no neutral place in philosophic space. All points of view are points of contention. Whether you speak or remain silent, your stance will create enemies. The question is not “will I offend?” The question is “will it have been worth my while?” The question is, “When death ensures my silence, will I have lived my truth?”