Happy new year.
It’s been increasing radio silence on this blog, which is to be expected after 3+ years of writing. I started writing here as a more publicly-accessible outlet for the kind of writing I have always done – essays that draw together my personal and professional thoughts on current topics. But there’s always a line drawn in those kinds of essays, a demarcation of oversharing, saying too much, telling something that shouldn’t be said for any variety of reasons. I’ve found myself not writing about the kinds of anxieties I used to because I’m in a place professionally at the moment where sharing those sorts of thoughts has the potential to air personal grievances that are better kept private, or to reveal excessive detail about my innermost thoughts to potential employers. But at the same time, that pressure to keep thoughts private is often what fuels inequality, keeping individuals feeling that their experiences are personal rather than systemic. However on the however, a constant sense that experiences must be shared and injustices revealed is currently driving a moral panic and related burnout in progressive circles. So how do we strike the balance of silence?
This is possibly the most obvious thing I could turn to in starting to answer this question, but I have to think of the classic Simon and Garfunkel song “Sound of Silence”. Do you know what this song is about? Really? It’s about the fear that silence on important issues will lead to society’s demise. The middle verses spell this out:
And in the naked light, I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
“Fools” said I, “You do not knowThe Sound of Silence, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel (1964)
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence
This song is a standard bearer for the progressive view of silence, that silence on important issues fuels their perpetuation. And we’ve seen how true this perspective can be in the past few years, as a new civil rights movement has surged thanks to a simple willingness to talk about the issues – sub-movements like Black Lives Matter, #metoo, and any number of mental health advocacy groups. Even, as I’ve written about before, openly talking about pregnancy, childbirth, and parenthood helps to improve our society’s treatment of people during these times.
But when Simon and Garfunkel wrote those words, they were still in the midst of the first Civil Rights Movement. They believed that there was a simple progression from words to actions to results. That what was keeping society unequal was compliance. Our reality is that words become garbled, actions are unclear and co-optable, and results are often miniscule and mixed.
This approach also looks at silence on the society-wide scale, rather than the scale of individual decision-making. Part of the reason I haven’t written much lately is because I am in the midst of a very professionally-precarious period, and while what I am experiencing might be useful to a lot of people in grad school, talking about it now could open me up to personal retribution. There are some ways that I’ve tried to push back on this – with this particular issue, I’ve been very open with my graduate colleagues about what I’ve been going through so that they can avoid my current situation, but that personal network is much smaller than the online grad student presence. In a similar vein, I was very open with people about my pregnancy and the experience of doing research with two infants at home, but that story doesn’t carry the same risks. I could present that in a way that was actually a professional asset, showing how parenthood had made me a more efficient worker and how much I had been able to do despite a major life event that is often seen as a career setback. What I’m experiencing now is less common, less understood, and much more likely to reflect negatively on me (even though all the people involved continue to support my work and job prospects).
Progressives do often carve out space for this personal exception. We might say “you need to show up for the cause, unless you have circumstances that will make you irreparably vulnerable.” I watched this play out recently during my grad union’s strike, when the union shut down the campus for a day. Union leaders put out information about the shut down, insisting that undergraduates would still be able to get to class without crossing the picket line through designated campus entrances, that medical services wouldn’t be interrupted, and that any student who relied on the dining hall for food would have access. Even before we saw how this played out, there was an inherent problem with this setup – to opt out of collective action, individuals would essentially have to announce their vulnerable status and explain their personal situation for the approval of union leaders. In practice, poor communication among the organizers meant that there were no obviously designated campus entrances, and students had to walk the entire circumference of the campus and any given building to find entry points, all the while being subjected to accusations of picket-line crossing and other kinds of vitriol. This kind of individual accommodation is common for this union, which, for instance, thinks that asking members with children to notify them if they need childcare to attend a meeting is enough to make participation possible. The thought, it appears, is what kind of accommodation is necessary to make the most committed participant overcome their personal obstacles to join in, rather than what kind of structure is necessary to make it difficult for anyone but the staunchest opponent to exempt themselves.
Seen this way, we’ve strayed from Simon and Garfunkel’s understanding of silence in more than just our disillusionment. The song assumes that no one is open to listening, that silence is contagious, and suggests that individual action, no matter how bold or loud, is essentially meaningless. As progressives, we frame problems in terms of systemic structures, and we envision solutions based on the greatest impact, but we visualize action as an individual responsibility. We call out on Instagram for people to talk to their family and friends, to educate themselves, to join the sea of like-minded individuals. Action is the weak link in our chain if we conceive of it in different terms than we do the other elements of our approach.
I come back to FD Signifier’s excellent video on Bo Burnham’s Inside, in which he points out all of the personal anxiety Bo expresses about being perceived as anything other than a contrite progressive. This is most obvious in the song “Hold me accountable” in which Bo literally begs the listener to berate him for all his vague insensitivities over the years. Inside is a great example of an individual breaking silence to drive action. It’s about mental health, the power of the internet, and social justice, but also also completely self-aware in its bias as originating in an able-bodied cis straight white man. At the risk of overindulging in something that I’ve already extensively waxed poetic about, I want to talk about how Inside tackles personal narrative-telling within the confines of societal expectations. The song “White woman’s instagram” is a very subtle version of this. On the surface, the song is the usual picking of low-hanging fruit about women who lack any kind of personality or individual sense of judgment – in its list of typical photos I’ve might find on a white woman’s Instagram feed, the song includes “incredibly derivative political street art” and “a dream catcher bought from Urban Outfitters”. But as the song goes on, it shows how women are often so trapped by standards of expected behavior that even our most personal, intimate moments are filtered through performance and aesthetics. The song breaks briefly in the bridge to unfold the story of a woman morning her mother, feeling real pain but unable to express her grief in anything other than humble brags and performative nostalgia. We can’t break our silence unless we do it beautifully.
Finally, we have to acknowledge that most women who break their silence for the sake of the public good find themselves the victims of intense public scrutiny and are scarcely able to move past their moment of speaking out – the most potent example is probably Anita Hill.
For me, right now, I’m content to stay largely private. I’ll keep writing what I think is worth sharing, and holding back posts and essays that I think have little to add. I’m still here, still writing, still living an overly full life on this side of my computer.