January 20, 2018

Silence is the Enemy – but whose silence?

I’m really torn over a blogosphere initiative that has started to take off over the past 24 hours. It’s called Silence is the Enemy. It was launched yesterday on a blog called The Intersection (it’s worth reading the full post), where Sheril Kirshenbaum describes her personal experiences, announces the initiative to “to help a generation of young women half a world away” and calls on “bloggers, writers, teachers, and concerned citizens–to use whatever platform you have to call for an end to the rape and abuse of women and girls in Liberia and around the world.”

Nick Kristof at the NYT blogged on it yesterday afternoon, it’s all over twitter, and in the past 24 hours the initiative has launched a facebook group that already has 1118 “members” (myself included). Now obviously it’s a good cause. So why are my feelings mixed?

In part I’m mulling over Evgeny Morozov‘s recent post about Slacktivism . What do 1118 members on a facebook group really translate to in terms of change? (yes I know – awareness raising, creating a potential group of advocates who will move beyond the facebook group sign-up to actually do something – – but how many of those who move from sign-up to action were not already engaged on this issue in the first place? I don’t think it’s a dead-end by definition – but does the initiative have the organization in place to support the effort it takes to turn members of a facebook group into informed effective advocates? If they do, more power to them. If they don’t – we’d all better start thinking about how to help out so the whole thing doesn’t just fizzle).

And in part I’m thinking through the recent discussions among Darfur advocates on this site about the fraught process involved in transitioning from “noise-making” – the awareness creating phase of a campaign – through to concrete policy asks . . .

I absolutely agree that Silence is the Enemy in terms of the stigma associated with talking about rape in our own communities. Both women – and men – who have been raped are silenced by their communities, and/or silence themselves because they believe – usually correctly – they will be attacked by their own communities if they do talk about it. Moreover my experiences lead me to believe that this holds true, in varying degrees, whether you belong to a Darfuri community stranded in a Chadian refugee camp, or to an elite community on the Harvard campus. There are reasons why people who have been raped often feel and/or are silenced. One of these reasons is that if you talk about being raped by someone in your own community you will invariably create disruption – not only to your own life, which has clearly already been disrupted – but also to the life of your community. Why? Because for the community to actually acknowledge and respond effectively to the occurrence of rape in its midst, the status quo will have to change – and that’s something that traditional power structures tend to push back against. If Silence is the Enemy and these deeper structural issues are, at least in part, at the root of such silence, then there’s a real challenge (well worth working on) in terms of nutting out how to develop concrete policy asks that could start to shift the whole miserable dynamic. And I guess my concern is whether this new initiative is going to rise up to this difficult and critical task.

You see, I’m not at all convinced that Silence is the Enemy when talking about rape in other people’s communities. The disturbingly witty  Wronging Rights bloggers vented on this point a little while back, noting that lack of reporting is no longer the problem when it comes to the continuation of widespread rape in the Congo, yet “for some reason “insufficient action” consistently gets translated as “insufficient awareness.” ”  The real problem is not lack of awareness, it’s lack of effective action – and to perpetuate the idea that the former is the problem risks misdirecting resources that can and should be focused on the latter.  Asking the blogosphere community to talk about rape occurring to people who are themselves silenced will raise awareness about rape happening elsewhere – but if it doesn’t increase the ability of rape survivors to speak for themselves then Silence Remains the Enemy in the locale that counts.

To be clear – I don’t want to be a nay-sayer and reject outright a new initiative before it really gets going. I’m signed up and I’m going to be checking back into the Intersection blog each day and see how the ways to get involved develop over time. Sheril walked the walk in her introduction by talking about her own experiences first – something I continue to struggle with.  And it’s far from illogical to move from the recognition that rape survivors themselves are often silenced, to asking others to use their voices to draw attention to the rapes that those who have experienced them cannot talk about for themselves. But I just don’t know if this is the right ask – or at least, not the best one. I don’t imagine this will be my last post on this . . .


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