The more visible you become, the more people will try to silence you. Sometimes they’ll do it by shouting over the top of you and sometimes they’ll do it in much more polite ways.
Often a fear of being silenced will stop us from speaking out at all. We either don’t want to have the argument or we don’t want to cause a negative response in another person.
I understand this completely and have made the same choice many times myself. Sometimes it’s essential for your own safety. But often it’s not and it’s those times that I want to encourage us all to make a different choice.
Because here’s what happens when we don’t speak up; the people who are silencing you are left unchallenged and unchecked. They assume the rightness of their positions and the wrongness of everyone else’s. They don’t become critical thinkers. They’re encouraged to hold onto and nurture their wounds. They speak from that wounded place and they spew their wounds onto everyone they can. They don’t learn how to engage constructively. And they don’t know how to listen.
What they do know how to do is to silence others.
Social conditioning means that women and men generally silence people in different ways.
Men often silence very aggressively. They’ll become verbally or physically abusive when someone challenges their world view. They literally can’t take it. Because they’ve long lived in a world where their behaviour has been left unchecked, they don’t have the resilience or capacity to hear an alternative perspective. And because they have no resilience, they start spewing hateful words – accusing everyone else of being hateful of course – and getting themselves worked up into an incredible frenzy because they’ve never learned how to be in dialogue with others.
The speed with which a seemingly good guy can turn into a paternalistic, lecturing know it all; or a disgruntled teenager refusing to engage in conversation; or a misogynistic, bullying arsehole can make your head spin.
When women silence other women, they do it quite differently. Because the good girl is always simmering under the skin of a woman who hasn’t taken the time to deconstruct her, women have learned to assert their opinions without appearing assertive (quite the high wire act). Women silence with consternation and judgment.
To understand how this works, it’s best to see it in action. Here’s a message I received this week on social media this week in relation to a post I wrote about the rage that can show up in those early days, weeks, months and years of motherhood. She said,“I’m not depressed, I’m enraged that my female body did not work to enable me to have children. Take a step back, take a breath and be grateful that your body could go through this and come out the other side. I would have loved to have been able to have children. Said with love xxx”
Now, on the face of it that seems harmless enough. If you read it quickly, you might even think it’s pleasant or supportive. It’s not (although I’m guessing she might have thought it was). Here’s what’s deeply problematic about it;
(i) If you strip the language of its niceties, here’s the real message; “Stop talking about something that I couldn’t experience. How ungrateful of you. You have children. How dare you complain.”
Now I want to be clear; I’m not personally offended by the message. Not at all. I’m happy that a woman who’s had a painful experience feels she can speak up in a forum I facilitate. What concerns me is that the only way she’s found to do that is by attempting to suppress the experience of the many, many women who are represented in the words I wrote in that post.
(ii) Sugar coating it doesn’t make it better. It makes it less obvious but not less insidious.
(iii) When a woman isn’t able to own her own rage, she becomes deeply uncomfortable with other women expressing theirs. Suppression of anger is a major problem faced by women of the world today. It causes deep divides amongst women and has often led to a backlash against women of colour in particular (in recent months I’ve seen sooo many white women telling women of colour to ‘tone it down’ or to find a way to express herself in a way that’s more palatable to white ears).
(iv) It reinforces one of the many faces of the patriarchal archetype of the good girl; the doting mother. So much of a woman’s struggle as a mother arises from the fact that she cannot live up to this image. And yet, here’s one woman attempting to silence another by reminding her that motherhood is something to be grateful for. So we end up in a tug of war; one woman attempting to free herself from her conditioning as another woman attempts to put her back in her box.
We simply can’t be good sisters to one another if we haven’t done the work to break down our own social conditioning.
If we haven’t stripped back all the ways we’ve been suppressing our voices, our sexuality, our emotions, our desires, and our opinions, we’ll inevitably find ourselves telling other women to be quiet, to play small, to be less. (In as nice a voice as we can muster, and ‘with love’ of course.)
The patriarchy has pulled us away from each other. It has pitched us against one another. It has told us that our sisters are our enemies not our friends. It has put us in competition with each other.
Narratives are used by the patriarchy to keep women in their place. When it comes to motherhood, the narrative speaks of tireless sacrifice, selflessness, eternal patience. It’s a saintlike role that I wouldn’t want to live up to even if I thought I could. For women who can’t have children, a label has been created; barren. The system has created an identity for her. One that’s constructed around lack. It’s a label that dehumanises. It’s disrespectful and it’s designed to cause pain.
I refuse to let the sisterhood be pulled apart by these narratives and these labels. I refuse to let the patriarchy come between us.
If we can’t find a way to allow our sisters to express themselves without consciously or subconsciously trying to silence them, how can we expect men to find their way to creating a space for women’s voices to be heard?
It’s a radical act for women to share their experiences and their opinions in a world that’s done everything it can to silence us.
As a woman, even when you don’t agree with what’s being said by one of your sisters, my hope is that you cheer loudly at the fact that she’s speaking up at all.
And when her voice reminds you that you haven’t being using yours, attempting to silence her will not solve your problem.
Eventually you must choose to speak up too.
Until you do, you’ll be allowing yourself to be used as a tool for oppression, perpetuating a system that doesn’t serve you.