I’ve been thinking about silence as both noun and verb. As a noun, silence stands sheltering, strong. As a noun, it provides a window, a shield against noise, a place to receive insight and information. But silence can also be a verb, an active, transitive verb. As a verb, it breaks apart, insinuates its way through the blood like shards of glass. As a verb, it’s deadly.
I’ve not experienced silence as a verb very often. I’m privileged, by nationality, race, education, neurology, physical ability, verbal agility, and probably even more qualities I tend to take unquestioningly for granted. Privilege is associated with permissions; yet all permissions are temporary. They can be taken away.
I’m a fairly low-level employee of a university I’m not permitted to name in social media. That privilege, of claiming affiliation for statements, beliefs, interests or ideas that may be unapproved by the legal entity that is the University, is restricted. A place in which I spend most of my waking life, has become a place which I can not name.
Let me state for the record: I didn’t often share this information on social media prior to this decree. I could say that it simply didn’t occur to me to do so, and that wouldn’t be inaccurate. More specifically, perhaps, it didn’t seem relevant. Social media is what I do and say here, as well as on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr. For an introvert like me, social media is a way to share and receive information with others without actually having to expend the energy required to see anyone. For those of us who traffic primarily in ideas and images, that opportunity can be delightful, overwhelming, distracting. It offers a uniquely social context unavailable in any other formats.
As an employee of a university I’m not permitted to name, I have become aware that my words, my ideas and images shared via social media (including this one) may be interrogated for content that may then be deemed inappropriate. I’ve never been prone to overly assiduous examination of the possible repercussions for my words and actions in the world: I’m not paranoid. In fact, I would imagine that it’s quite unlikely that these words, these images will be examined for content of any sort. However, in learning that such interrogation is possible – the knowledge of which now seems so apparent and obvious that I’m left a little shaken by my former ignorance – I’ve been stunned by the interior silence with which I meet that attention.
The university which I’m not permitted to name has little to do with this internal silence, other than my own interpretation of permission. Prior to these new guidelines regarding social media, my understanding of my words and actions as an employee were separate and distinct from my words and actions as a private citizen. As an employee, I’ve carefully cultivated a respectful, professional manner. I minimize aspects of my life which may not be well-received by colleagues; I avoid conflict. As with any relationship, certain parts of my life are silenced. Let me be clear: I silence myself, in order to maintain relationship.
I’ve always been able to find a path inside the work I do that matches my own sense of integrity, and through this work, I’ve learned more about how to live deeply, fully, and compassionately. I’ve learned the power of communication, of finding words that draw the internal experience out into the exterior world. To a certain extent, the work I’ve done for many years has made this writing possible; I wouldn’t be who I am, wouldn’t have the thoughts, ideas, experiences I’ve had, without first requiring within myself a strong and powerful silence that’s required in order to practice careful listening to others.
But that attentiveness to the experience of others brings with it a need to match its force with expression of my own voice. At the end of the day, I haven’t got any more words left for other people…but I’m able to write. I need to write.
Here’s the thing about silence as a verb: it’s subtle. It’s like the bullying that girls do to each other, less about the physical pummeling of fists than about soft snickering, ridicule, exclusion. In thinking about silence, I’ve felt ridiculous, embarrassed, ashamed. Wrong, on so many fronts. My words don’t stand up to scrutiny, are not pressed and neat like soldiers in a row. They sidle, furtively, into position, and, with a glance, slide away again. Does this mean that they aren’t valid? If I can’t defend them, are they indefensible?
My experience of silence, as a person of so many privileges, is minute; almost like the skipping of a record over a speck of dust. I’m not threatened with legal fines or physical imprisonment, as the more totalitarian definition of silence is understood. As far as I know, I’m not risking overt social censure, no matter what I might find within myself to say. And yet, I find myself examining every word I write for its public defense, and, until this essay, almost every one of them was deleted.
And yet – I’m grateful for this experience. Because I’ve seen, time and time again, people who don’t share the same privileges I inherited, choose to not be silenced. I’ve stood in the background, filled with admiration for their courage and integrity. I’ve seen them risk public embarrassment, financial censure, damage to existing relationships, as well as the intense scrutiny that comes with any revelation. This is not to say that all information should be revealed, or that individual privacy should not be deeply respected. There are aspects of my life which I choose to reveal only selectively, not a result of shame, but because they may be distracting, irrelevant to the circumstances in which I speak. However, to be silenced regarding identity or experience is a new experience, for me, one that affords me a deeper appreciation and gratitude for the role models I’ve had, those who have chosen to speak their truths, even when, or especially when, those truths have not been convenient for others to hear. Even when, or especially when, those truths have not been comfortable to accept within themselves.
It’s the experience of other people, jettisoning the seeming safety of silence, that strengthens me now. It’s the experience of seeing a new postulate to the priesthood bravely carrying a dark hoodie “for those who can not be with us today” to his first-ever sermon, the morning after the Zimmerman verdict. It’s witnessing the weekly arrests of those who can not remain silent in the face of North Carolina’s recent legislative decisions. It’s knowing the many survivors of violence and discrimination who choose to speak their truths; who are not believed, and yet speak anyway.
These words, my words, are for you.