The question of ‘voice’ and how we communicate and how we organise has dominated online discussion in the last few days.
‘You are trying to silence me’ is one of those accusations that is thrown around and it is used because it has much weight.
In her collection of essays The Mother of All Questions Rebecca Solnit writes:
“Silence is the ocean of the unsaid, the unspeakable, the repressed, the erased, the unheard.”
She distinguishes ‘silence’ as that which is imposed and ‘quiet’ as something that is sought. They sound the same but feel very different.
“Quiet is to noise as silence is to communication. The quiet of the listener makes room for the speech of others, like the quiet of the reader taking words on the page, like the white paper taking ink.”
She points us to libraries as repositories of all the stories that have been told, all the voices that have been heard and privileged enough to be published and recorded but suggests there are ‘ghost libraries’ of all the stories that have not, arguing: “the ghosts outnumber the books by some unimaginably vast sum”.
The reasons for exclusion – for being silenced – are many and varied and as we try and develop understanding that is a valuable thing to remember.
Time, or lack of it, silences.
“I’m sorry I can’t get a babysitter” is probably the single most common response to a request to participate in a public event you will ever hear. But being responsible for someone else takes other forms than being a dad or a mum, and the internal domestic dynamics of parenting arrangements shouldn’t be assumed to be static or uniform. People are carers for their elderly or ill relatives. People can’t imagine public speaking. People are exhausted. People are untrained, unsure, people lack confidence.
Discussing voice in political movements for democracy is crucial and we need to develop better ways to exchange views and to develop. But the starting point has to be acknowledging the systemic and structural exclusion of women from the public realm, historic economic inequality and sustained contemporary violence. Feigning ignorance of these realities or deciding they are peripheral isn’t really credible for adults operating in a political movement.
You shouldn’t really need examples but here’s two. An everyday account of sexual assault – and an incident this week where a woman reports rape to police – and is then arrested on immigration charges.
Much of the discussion about equality and representation has now turned to attacking those who raise these issues, accusing them of being part of a secret communist cult. There is talk of the need to ‘stamp them out’.
When people say that you have an “agenda” what they mean is you have an understanding of power.
When people talk of ‘social justice warriors’ they are using the language of the alt-right. When people deride ‘identity politics’ they are almost always from a section of society that already lives in privilege.
The independence movement will either reconcile itself or it will allow its vocal right-wing to engulf it and it will become a parody, a sub-culture operating only on the fringes of the online community in entirely sealed groups where people gather daily to enthusiastically agree with one another.
The Yes movement needs to be built on self-organisation and participation. The huge success of the independence movement in 2013-14 was the recognition of the need for new models for change, for multiple leadership, for mass participation, for doing things differently. The emergence of young people, of the women’s movement, of the disaffected was the major success of the campaign. That needs to be reclaimed and reasserted.
“The struggle of liberation has been in part to create the conditions for the formerly silenced to speak and be heard” writes Solnit.
There is huge good energy and goodwill and practical engaged and innovative people working together to get ready for the moment when we can find a way out of the nightmare that is being part of the British state. To do that we need to innovate and find new routes and map a better course.
Solnit quotes the sci-fi writer Ursula Le Guin “We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.”
Changing the maps is the point of the independence movement, not just changing the flags.