The best speech I ever heard Svend Robinson give was at the 1990 Stein Valley Festival. He came to the stage wearing an AIDS awareness t-shirt emblazoned with the words “SILENCE=DEATH.” And he spoke with passion and eloquence about how these words had a far-reaching meaning, beyond activism for public health, beyond activism for queer equality, beyond the social context in which they were deployed, to the larger justice-seeking project.
A few years ago, I was talking with a man in his nineties about growing up in the Jim Crow South as a black person. One of the most arresting stories he told was of driving with his father down a country road when the two suddenly spotted a body hanging from a tree, a local black man who had been tortured to death and displayed as a symbol of white supremacy. My friend spoke with a vivid eloquence about how a silence descended on the car that made it impossible for him and his father to speak and how, when they returned home, they brought that silence into the house with them and how it wordlessly enveloped his mother, sisters, grandmother and brother.
Silence and terror are always allies.
One of the features of acts that reinforce and magnify oppressive power dynamics is the field of silence they generate around themselves. In this field, it is impossible for those under attack to form alliances and create solidarity. Even more basically, it is impossible for the injured and terrorized to heal, to receive support and sympathy from family, friends and allies. Lynchings, real lynchings, not the bullshit fake lynchings I talked about in my last two posts, spread an infectious silence through black homes, black businesses and black churches around the South, a silence that choked off words in the throats of terrorized people. To organize against them, to warn potential targets, to challenge the hegemony of the powerful men who privately condoned and enabled them, it was first necessary to speak about the collective horror.
Like sexual violence today, lynchings were never legal. Like sexual violence today, their prevalence, in the context of the explicit legal prohibition, was effected by a pantomime with two key features: (1) a discourse of the weakness and incompetence of the state the handle the social problem with which they were associated and (2) a narration of the individual exceptionality of the specific case being discussed. Lynchings were never condoned, as a systemic phenomenon, by the folks who supported them. And when powerful planters sat around the dinner table and the subject of lynchings came up, the point was to distinguish one’s local lynching as justified, from the no doubt ill-thought-out and excessive lynchings that had happened in the next state, the next county or last year.
The individual lynching under discussion was always the exception and never the rule. In this way, one could concurrently believe that white trash mob violence had got out of hand and that the local black shopkeeper hanging from a nearby tree personally had it coming. And that is what we see in celebrity rape apologetics today. Sure, most testimonies of sexual violence are true, just never the ones that are before us.
That is why it is so upsetting when somebody starts talking about how the violence of a Bill Cosby or a Jian Ghomeshi resembles the violence of another man. By “committing sociology,” to quote the Right-Honourable member for Calgary Southwest, we begin to do what the anti-lynching movement began doing in the late nineteenth century: learning something about how concurrently illicit and elite-condoned social practice was functioning to cause injury and death.
Because, let me be clear: there is no metaphor, no hyperbole here. When it comes to sexual violence, silence does equal death. Sometimes victims are killed in the course of the initial assault. Sometimes it takes days, months or even years for the permanent physical and psychological damage to bring about death. But it is indisputable that sexual violence kills and that, to bring down its body count, we must be able to talk about it openly and without fear.
If silence equals death, then free speech equals life. And we would do well to talk about how arguing, debating, educating and conversing we are affirming human life.
First of all, refusing to remain silent is prophylaxis. When a person talks to those near them about the sexual violence they have suffered, they are not just seeking out support and comfort. They are warning people and letting them know how to protect their bodies from being abducted, choked, beaten, punched, slapped and penetrated against their will. It is rare for sexually violent people to target only one individual in the course of their careers of violence. Sexually violent individuals are no different than lethal pathogens insofar as they endanger the physical health of whole communities when everyone is silent about the risk they pose. In this way, SILENCE=DEATH requires no reframing, no translation to move from the sphere of sexually transmitted disease to the sphere of social violence.
To speak about one’s assailant is to protect potential targets of the individual’s violence. That is why it is so important for predators to conscript those they assault into burnishing their reputations. And that is why the social norms that function to enable this kind of social violence exert such pressure on victims not only to remain silent but to allay the fears of those who begin to suspect that their assailant might be a dangerous individual.
Second, refusing to remain silent is to think aloud, to analyze, to comprehend. Media and popular entertainment constantly reinforce the idea that people who are compulsively driven to perpetrate violence are reclusive, remote, obviously creepy single men with few associates and little family. When we make the conversation about human predation a wider, more comprehensive one, what we often find is not that progressive, charming, erudite, attractive, intelligent men are not the exception but the rule. The fact is that a successful career in sexual violence is one that requires highly complex and sophisticated social action in which whole social circles and discourse communities are manipulated.
Our image, so often, of rapists and violent men are of those who have been caught, either because they never developed the ability to manipulate social realities around them to permit a long-running career of violence or because something has happened that has caused this ability to deteriorate. In this way, our image of the human predator is that of one who is in the process of losing his mojo or who never had it at all. And, unless we commit sociology, our image of these individuals will be those who dementia, cockiness, madness or a loss of self-control has deprived of the ability to silence those around them. And that image serves those who are at the top of their game very well indeed. They are only too happy to make sure that our eyes are trained on dishevelled men in stained clothes, driving dented and dilapidated vehicles.
Indeed, this is how we are meeting Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby, men thrown off their game by cockiness and dementia. If we really overcame the dynamics that silence us, we could ask more frightening and important questions. In particular, we could ask what does a sexually violent person look like when they are at the top of their game, and how is that different from how they look when sloppiness and ill health finally bring them low? What does a successful predator look like and what does such a person hide behind? What tools might they use to maintain a field of silence around them? A public image whose destruction might set back a minority community? An important charitable or political project that might not survive their public humiliation? Unremunerated labour used to provide for the old, the sick, the dying? Financial generosity extended to desperate and damaged people?
Third, refusing to remain silent is to organize and take responsibility and to exhort others to do the same. We cannot organize against social evil unless we can name, understand and debate it.