The Orlando bloodbath has left many people, myself included, speechless. What is there to say, after the umpteenth mass shooting in this supposed greatest nation on earth, a country where, in some places, it’s easier to buy a semi-automatic than Sudafed?
Temporary speechlessness, in the aftermath of a shock, is not the same as silence. Perhaps the ultimate goal of all forms of violence, not just the physical or fatal variety, is to silence others whose opinions, lifestyles, or whose very existence threatens something within the perpetrator. Perhaps some of those who commit heinous acts were once silenced, sidelined or marginalized by family, community or society, and their own repressed expression festered until it erupted. The same could be said of those who employ more subtle forms of violence, using words rather than objects.
Take sarcasm, defined as “a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain.” Among other ancient roots, it derives from the Greek sarkazein, to ‘tear flesh’. Perhaps others are quicker with a repartee, but if someone speaks to me sarcastically, my habitual response is to go silent and I hesitate from re-engaging. I’m still developing the capacity to address such injuries on the spot, rather than letting the wound fester. Still, if the other person doesn’t get it, why risk exposing oneself to a potential verbal knifing?
Then there’s interruption. This election cycle I’ve ventured into watching mainstream news on occasion until being reminded of why I once stopped. Frequently, the anchor person or journalist interrupts or talks over the interviewee, or tries to force them into an ideological corner. In the race to score a point or ratings, those invited to speak are often silenced, their sentences chopped off by a verbal guillotine before completion, their thoughts left in mid-air as if dangling from a noose. It’s as if the right to be heard completely is dependent upon being able to talk quickly or outwit another. This pattern repeats itself in the culture at large, which is more accustomed to talking than listening.
How about rhetoric and generalization? At times, they can be used to great effect to build community, establish a common ground or nurture a collective identity. Still, they are also tools for silencing people with more nuanced thought or whose experience is not the norm. Even the seemingly innocuous assertion “Americans love baseball” leaves out the people who really don’t care about the sport. That, in turn, can lead to, “If you don’t love baseball, you’re not really American,” which is not so harmless. When these generalizations are repeated ad nauseum by a majority in the culture, they can silence the minority. More horrifying is the generalization, propagated forever it seems, that women who dress or look a certain way or consume alcohol “are asking for it” and that “boys will be boys”. Those words, and the snake pit of misogynistic beliefs seething beneath them, have contributed to a culture of silence and shame around rape, allowing it to continue. The Orlando horror came on the heels of the Brock Turner case in which a “promising athlete” and Stanford student received a fraction of the recommended prison sentence for his rape of an unconscious woman. The slap on the wrist provoked outrage, shattering more of the silence.
Despite the staying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me,” words, language and speech matter. While I don’t condone insults and name calling, they are so blunt as to be obvious red flags. Regular words, when used in a certain tone of voice, or spoken so quickly so as to squelch true dialogue, or repeated thoughtlessly over the decades in so-called polite society, may be less offensive on the surface but can still breed an unhealthy silence. Most of us have experienced being silenced in some way, at some time. We might unwittingly silence others, too, simply because the cultural habit to do so runs deep. The aftermath of the Orlando massacre, where 49 innocent people were silenced forever, is an opportunity to reflect not just on the availability of guns but also on the role silence plays in our lives. We can honor the dead by examining our own patterns around silence. Do we let others silence us? If so, which people and under what circumstances? Do we do it to ourselves or to others? Why and when? These can be painful questions to consider, whether you discuss them with another or contemplate them in silence, the healthy kind.