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speaking out makes it harder to speak out

In the wake of the recent university of chicago hubbub about trigger warnings and all that (I’ve written about this topic enough already so I won’t say more), I (of course) read the new version of Sara Ahmed’s, “Against Students”, published on the New Inquiry. You may recall that I’ve cited and talked about this particular essay several times. First, because it utterly destroys the moral panic about trigger warnings, safe spaces, and censorship on campus. Second, because she actually defends me in the essay and this defense is a balm to my soul (she doesn’t know who I am and probably doesn’t even realize that part of her essay is about me and about defending me. And I’m not speaking in the abstract here. She defends me specifically.):

I have read other articles that suggest that when students talk of harassment it is assumed that professors must be guilty of coercion: “an enunciation of an accusation is all it should ever take to secure a guilty verdict.” The implication here is that it is easy for students to complain about professors who harass them (“enunciation” – as if an accusation is a word that can be thrown carelessly); and that complaints are automatically registered as guilt, as if an offense is only committed because a student is offended. Sara Ahmed, “Against Students”

See this? This paragraph is about me (and Lisa). If you know the source of the quoted article (and I certainly do), then you know that male author of that piece is talking about Lisa, me, and the Case. You might also recall that the same piece led to the harassment of someone I admire greatly (and lead to harassment of those of us publicly affiliated with the Case).

Since my brain tends to pick up (and echo) other’s writing and voices, my thought after reading this essay again was:

Speaking out makes it harder to speak out.

But I probably would’ve just kept that thought to myself, since my experience speaking out has taught me that speaking out is dangerous and very likely to get me sued all over again. Then I read about how gossip is resistance and realized that perhaps I ought to say something after all.

The basic argument of the feministing article is that gossip, when it is functioning as a whisper network, acts as a way for women to communicate dangers and the like amongst ourselves. Essentially, gossip (whispering behind people’s backs) is a way o keep ourselves safe and, thus, it serves to resist the compulsion that we are entirely silent about these things – even amongst ourselves. Since, as Ahmed points out: talking about the problem becomes the problem, ensuring that the actual problem being spoken about simply dissappears.

Its funny to me how Ahmed has been working so long on sexual harassment in academia, how the feministing gossip article mainly focuses on sexual assault, and how this all ties into why my life is in shambles.

While I don’t disagree that whisper networks and gossiping have some value and are, regrettably, necessary, I think its also important to understand how their existence becomes evidence of the problem they are trying to solve (ie, sexual harassment). I think its also important to realize the very real and serious limitations that gossip/whisper networks have in terms of their utility for dealing with sexual harassment. Moreover: I think it is important to understand how gossip/whisper networks come to help create the problems that they try to solve (or at least avoid).

A discussion about rape culture – what it is and how it operates – has going on for a while now. And, yes, gossip/whisper networks are themselves evidence that rape culture exists and that one of its functions is silence. In reality, violations of consent are things that should never be spoken about – not even in whispers. So yeah. Whispering about that which should never be spoken is an act of resistance. The distant murmuring of voices is significantly better than total silence.

Blackamazon has, however, been quick to point out one of the chief flaws of this system. Because gossip/whisper networks rely on informal networks and are thus entirely opaque to outsiders, who is ‘outside’ of the network tends to be the most vulnerable. In order to ‘prevent’ a sexual assualt from happening via the whisper network, it requires that you are close enough to the relevant actors to actually be told.

The femninisting article points out this limitation (tw: rape):

Example: At the end of my senior year in college, I slept with a man who is known to be a serial rapist.

My friend told me the morning after. She was giddy on early-summer wine. I shuddered to her how strange it was, his robotic thrusting, his big, unfeeling hands.

She hiccuped on the grass. “Oh honey,” she said. Hiccup. Honey-colored hair. “Everyone knows. I would have told you if you had just asked…”

This? Is why this is a problem and not a solution of any kind. Her friend knew. But in order for this incident to not happen, the victim was apparently supposed to know that she ought to ask a friend about the man: “I would have told you if you had just asked…”. How someone is supposed to know to ask in the first place is a mystery.

Again: the problem with gossip/whisper networks as a means for addressing sexual harassment/assult is that you must be told in order to be forewarned. And the above is the easy situation. What happens to those women who – for varying reasons of power and oppression – aren’t even considered needing protection in the first place? Or the same women who are always pushed far aside where they’re never even in the position to hear or ask about the gossip?

What is said when she writes (and other people say): ‘everyone knows’. This was the most common response re: the Case. And it was a common theme post ghomeshi. Everyone knows.

Except not everyone did. Clearly.

So gossip and whisper networks fail for those of us who aren’t ‘everyone’ and likely will never be ‘everyone’. Because some of use are pushed even outside of the margin and no one is about to tell us anything ever.

But this is getting us to the point where we realize that gossip and whisper networks come to help reproduce what feministing claims they are resisting. Its partially contained in that seemingly harmless phrase: everyone knows. If everyone knows, then further action is likely not necessary. People have been warned of who is dangerous and now they know to avoid this man and that. What else is there to do? A lot, it turns out.

First…

This posits the notion that knowing about a danger is sufficient to avoid that danger. If I know that a particular road is tricky, slippery, or whatever then I can slow down and be more careful. Except that ‘accidents’ happen (for cars but not for sexual harassment/assualt). What happens to the people who might very well ‘know’ that this man should be avoided but… but. They cannot avoid the man. That man is still their teacher. Still their boss.

Knowing about a danger is not the same as averting that danger.

Second…

Who is and isn’t ‘everyone’ isn’t an arbitrary factor based on the perceived popularity of the person. Rather, we know from other dangerous claims of universality that ‘everyone’ tends to be a highly restrictive and select group of people. People selected along lines of power and oppression. It is non-accidental that ‘everyone’ frequently omits the most vulnerable to harm. And this isn’t a conspiracy theory or anything. We know that most white people have very few friends of colour. Who is going to warn the fresh-faced woman of colour new to the university?

Worse yet… It is a very real thing that some people are considered unrapeable. Black women have frequently spoken about this reality. So have trans women (in more than a few places trans women are left out of the legal definition of rape, rendering us literally unrapeable within those judicial systems). But… But. Beyond this too, there are all sorts of undesirable women out there. Women who aren’t thought of as vulnerable because they are so undesirable. Because, despite all the talk about how rape isn’t about the desirability of the victim, gossip and whisper networks partially function off of this principle.

The information is usually ‘need to know’. Note in the example above. The knowledge that a certain man is a known serial rapist is given when asked for. Or, perhaps, if this friend had known about the possibility of contact in advance would’ve said something. But why would you go out of your way to tell the fat girl that so and so is dangerous and shouldn’t be trusted? Unlikely anyone will want to date her….

Third…

We slid into this in the last paragraph… if you assume that ‘everyone knows’ that this lets you off the hook about telling anyone. It is a message to the victim that not knowing is their own fault (for not asking and for simply not knowing). If ‘everyone knows’, then why did’t you?

But there is no need to proactively tell anyone either. You know that ‘everyone knows’ and so it is generally unnecessary to spread the gossip. In this way whisper networks serve to reproduce the silence that necessitates them in the first place. There is no purpose in speaking about something that is common knowledge.

In other words: gossip and whisper networks encourage complacency.

Fourth…

What is whispered about is supposed to be a secret. The very nature of gossip and whisper networks is that the people being spoken about, ideally, should never know that they are being spoken about. You whisper because you know that speaking at all isn’t allowed. And so you whisper quietly with the implicit (and sometimes explicit) expectation that what is whispered shall never be spoken. Especially not shouted.

Gossip is always supposed to remain hidden and unseen (like women ourselves ought to). As such we create a context and situation where speaking gossip aloud (re: spoken to the wrong person), is often perceived as a Bad Thing. It is the proverbial airing of dirty laundry. The person responsible for airing the laundry then becomes responsible for making it dirty in the first place.

As a consequence speaking out becomes an inherently suspicious act. You are breaking confidences. You are breaking trust. You are breaking the rules, ultimately. This is why people who speak out have such a difficult time being seen as credible. The act of speaking is a loss of credibility. And since you are now suspect, your motivations and reasons and existence need to be interrogated, questioned, and dissected. And finally. Finally. Maybe (maybe) after you are entirely laid bare, if you died bravely and were gloriously martyred, then and only then might you be considered credible enough to be believed. And only then will the focus shift (but even now not guaranteed) to the problem exposed by your speaking out.

So yes… gossip can be resistance. After all, it ultimately breaks a silence that is supposed to be total and complete. But gossip and whisper networks also serve to create (or reproduce) the wider institutionally imposed silence. The speaking out is contained to individuals and person-to-person transmissions. The speaking out isn’t directed to the institutions that demand silence in the first place. But more importantly: maintaining gossip and whisper networks becomes a moral imperative. To break the silence is to break the trust.

And so those who speak out receive punishment from all sides. The institutions that enforce and demand silence punish those who defy them. The silenced people punish the speaker for breaking trust. In this way speaking out makes it harder to speak out.1

  1. To be clear… I mean that speaking out in and of itself is the punishable act. The results of speaking out good (perhaps the institution is forced to ‘solve’ the problem by dealing with the sexual harasser) or bad (the speaker is found guilty and thus the harasser innocent) makes no difference to the punishment recieved. And this, this is the true trap of speaking out.

    I’m trying to think. But I can’t think of a single example of speaking out that isn’t also a cautionary tale about speaking out. Even the ‘successful’ (few they may be) acts of speaking are cautionary tales. Regardless of what happens, the institutions and the silenced work together to ensure that the cost of speaking is always too high.

    No doubt some are going to read this as a type of victim blaming since silencing is a violent function of power. To be silenced is to be oppressed. And, yes, this is true. But to be silent is also to be complicit. Also important, as articulated by my favourite librarian, Audre Lorde: “your silence will not protect you”. And we can afford to be nuanced about this. Silence isn’t just one thing. Its contextual. Being silent in one context is oppression. Being silent in another is complicity. And, yes, based on what I’ve heard a lot of people say, many people know which silence is which. Off the top of my head I can think of several times my silence was complicit. Situations where I knew that speaking out was the Right Thing but I said nothing. This is a guilt and regret I live with.