Content Note: silencing, debate.
So, a couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post about my feelings. It was a fairly self-indulgent post lacking in much analysis or critique. But sometimes – as perhaps is the nature of someone who keeps a blog – I find it therapeutic to write about and process my feelings in such a way. However, any therapeutic feeling I was striving for was soon lost amidst the moderate outrage that ensued around my post.
Not the outrage that was outrage of disagreement – for I suppose the nature of feelings is that others have them too and they won’t necessarily correlate with your own – but outrage that I was somehow ‘stifling debate’ by not engaging with those who disagreed.
This genuinely surprised me and yet a significant number of people seemed to feel that in not engaging with people who felt otherwise, I had created an alienating and divisive environment.
I thought on this for a while. I thought on those ideas. On ‘stifling’, on ‘engaging’, on ‘alienating’ and on ‘being divisive’.
At a very basic level I suppose I hadn’t considered it my job to provide a platform for debate. Whilst I had invited people to ‘disagree’ I hadn’t considered it my job to dissuade them from their feelings by justifying my own. I suppose when it comes to ‘engagement’ I take a view that is not the one cherished by Cambridge: I take the view that not everything is up for debate, and not every clash of opinions must be ‘resolved’ or ‘won’. Indeed, the validity of my feelings and experiences does not come from the fact that other people believe or agree with them, it does not come from the fact I can persuade others of their truth, but it comes from the fact that that they exist and I know them to be true.
In fact, if I relied on persuading others of the truth of my experiences in an environment like Cambridge, I would have stopped coping long ago. When societies are made up of constructs that shape our experiences, and when my experience of the world is thus felt through the fact I fit multiple and intersecting constructs; in a place where so few people can share that experience, I rely not on their belief, but my truth.
Thus, when it comes to ‘engaging’ with people I tend to select engagements based on how much I feel that an understanding could be reached, how much the other party is here to listen rather than to ‘win’, and how much energy I have to put into justifying my existence. To me it is unnecessary to engage in every ‘debate’, it is unnecessary to legitimise and ‘prove’ every feeling, because I’m not here to win, I’m here just to get by.
Indeed, most of the ‘debates’ I’ve entered with people at this University were ones where I mistakenly assumed the aim of conversation was to reach understanding of each other’s positions even if we did not completely agree – sadly, I was wrong. The nature of debating and ‘discussion’ here tends to cultivate an atmosphere of ‘winning’. Conversation is not the means to understanding but more usually a form of play, almost a sport.
It is funny then, to me, that in not wanting to engage, in refusing to ‘debate’ – people get upset. In fact, more than that, they get angry. There is a feeling that in not justifying or attempting to persuade and ‘prove’ my feelings, I am not only not debating, I am stifling debate.
When I think of ‘stifling’ I think of suppressing, containing, constraining… I think of silencing. And when I think of silencing and who is silenced by society I find myself asking, who is silenced? Whose experiences are erased? And for whose benefit? Who does the silencing?
Essentially, ‘stifling’ comes down to power. It has to. It is inherently an act of power. Superficially on a Facebook status I may have the power to shut down a thread and refuse to engage with or explain my feelings. But when you log out of Facebook any power I may have wielded to stifle debate quickly dries up. In fact, as a brown Muslim woman, the power and influence I have to silence or stifle others is relatively small. More than that, in the context of Cambridge and the majority of voices here, the ability I have to silence is majorly outweighed by the ability others have to silence me. To silence someone is to dismiss or disable their voice or dissent. As an individual or minority voice, mine is very easy to quash. Silencing doesn’t have to be violent, it doesn’t have to be overtly threatening; in fact it often comes in the form of jokes, or the form of criticism and denial of anger. But in all these cases, silencing is done to, not by, the already marginalised.
It was a surprise to me then that people felt I had stifled them. When chatting to a friend about it the next day he took it for granted that ‘people are scared of you.’ At this point, I had to call it.
Scared? Scared of me coming along and stifling debates and shutting up voices that dissent against my hegemonic worldview? I had to once again roll my eyes. But actually, I was outraged. I was outraged because that right there was the stifling of debate. THAT RIGHT THERE WAS ME BEING SILENCED. ‘You’re scary so I won’t engage with you’. Done, dismissed, no need to engage. The irony overwhelmed me.
This idea of fear is the same one applied to ‘feminism’. This idea that feminists are ‘scary’ and ‘silencing’ and everybody is terrified to disagree with them except for the very bravest of mankind. This idea of fear is the same one applied to ‘political correct lefties’ who have created a discourse of ultimate terror due to being over-sensitive to racism and sexism rather than allowing debate in an open manner. (And there’s not enough space here to broach the whole ‘free speech’ malarkey – everybody has the freedom to speak but not everybody is given a platform to do so okay?) But in deploying this idea of ‘fear’, and that feminism is ‘intimidating’, or vocal women are ‘stifling’ you have to see the irony.
Let me ask one question: if you are afraid, what are you afraid of? Fear is usually of something we deem to be dangerous or a threat to us. Perhaps if you feel threatened by my feelings and experiences you should ask yourself what threat they pose to you? Why are they making you feel uncomfortable?
At the end of the day if it is scaring the right people then I will continue to use my voice. If it causing concern then I will continue to share my experiences without justification and to be honest to myself. Because, in a world where fear accompanies every voicing of my experiences, I suppose I have nothing to lose.
In the words of Audre Lorde (who inspired me to make this blog public at last):
“Your silences will not protect 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 at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.”