Make your voice heard: an opinion on the futility of self-silencing

Rather than refuse to ‘give oxygen’ to toxic views and poisonous commentators, we need to play them at their own game. Jonathan Boniface offers his view on why ‘turning the other cheek’ no longer seems to work.


There’s been an awful lot of debate recently regarding the concept of ‘silencing’. The whole accusation of ‘silencing’ is generally pretty contentious, and the term is often thrown around with indiscriminate and self-serving abandon; I have found myself, in recent weeks, unashamedly advocating a change in the balance of power between privileged voices and those that they have sought to oppress. Sadly, once you argue that position, you face a veritable onslaught of almost (though not exclusively) white, middle class cis people accusing you of wanting to ‘silence’ them. We’ll just say the words ‘Germaine Greer’ and leave it at that.

I have no desire to revisit the same territory here, rather I want to go a step further. Of course, it is plainly obvious to anyone with a genuine desire to advance equality for all that working to amplify the voices of the oppressed over those of the privileged is very much necessary. To me, however, and this is something of an evolving thought process at present, we should also refrain from silencing ourselves in response to the very same people. We often tell ourselves that we shouldn’t engage with people who seek to spread intolerance; that it’s best to ignore them and let them be single voices of madness in a sea of everyone else’s common sense.

I’ve argued this myself on many occasions; I’ve acted upon that notion when dealing with, or being on the receiving end of abuse from a variety of unpleasant people. The problem is that I’m no longer sure it’s the way forward. I’m beginning to wonder if all we achieve by not engaging is a ‘self-silencing’ that amplifies the voices of those who seek to spread intolerance and oppression. That said, I accept that it’s not always possible for everyone to do that, but that’s a point I’ll return to later.

Believe me, I ‘get’ the philosophy behind not engaging with blatant intolerance – I’ve even advocated as much to others. We talk about not ‘pouring fuel onto the fire’ or not ‘giving oxygen’ to such people and their toxic arguments. These metaphors are charming, not least for their evocative and visual nature, but they’re ultimately self-defeating. It’s like that equally lovely old-fashioned phrase – ‘I won’t dignify that with a response’. Well, the problem is that we’re no longer living in the nineteenth century and (as the development of online discussion, debate, trolling and bullying increasingly shows) we’re not living in a particularly polite age. I’m not saying there’s isn’t a place for ‘turning the other cheek’ but, increasingly, this doesn’t seem to work.

I’m beginning to wonder if all we achieve by not engaging is a ‘self-silencing’ that amplifies the voices of those who seek to spread intolerance and oppression.

Let’s take Katie Hopkins as an example. For years now (yes, it really has been years that we’ve had to endure her toxic self-promotion) those of us who abhor her views have adopted the approach of not engaging with, or ‘feeding’ her with attention. We’ve told ourselves that’s it better off not engaging as it’s ‘giving her what she wants’. All well and good, but it hasn’t really worked, has it? Although Hopkins recently experienced something of a backlash for her views during the migrant crisis, instances like this are fleeting at best; she continues to gain Twitter followers (the Holy Grail of all good trolls) and gather like-minded supporters – she’s even upgraded herself from one national newspaper to another similar publication that seems even more suited to her values and opinions. In short, not pouring fuel on that fire hasn’t stopped it spreading – Hopkins has thrived.

This begs the obvious question: why doesn’t isolating and ignoring such people work? Why does the fire continue to spread despite starving it of oxygen? I don’t claim to have a definitive answer but what I’m guessing is that it’s as simple as this: if you’re not ‘fanning the flames’ through your resistance, you can bet that someone else is feeding the fire with their support.

We talk about not ‘pouring fuel onto the fire’ or not ‘giving oxygen’ to such people and their toxic arguments. These metaphors are charming, not least for their evocative and visual nature, but they’re ultimately self-defeating.

This leads to an even more worrying thought: if ‘not giving oxygen’ to such arguments doesn’t work anymore, then surely all we’re doing by ignoring ignorance and intolerance is silencing the dissent to such hatefulness?

Maybe the problem is that it’s easy to assume, if you’re a reasonable or ‘liberal’ person, that hateful words will speak for themselves and that they will be rejected by the ‘sane majority’ because they think like you and they see the world in colours that go beyond black and white. But we can’t afford to think like that anymore; sadly, it’s sheer fallacy to assume that everyone is open-minded, reasonable and tolerant. People are fickle, unreasonable and, as history has and continues to show, more prone to intolerance than reason in the face of real or perceived threat. You can’t assume they’ll see something that’s obviously wrong to you as, well, wrong.

If ‘not giving oxygen’ to such arguments doesn’t work anymore, then surely all we’re doing by ignoring ignorance and intolerance is silencing the dissent to such hatefulness?

People don’t get any less hateful by being ignored, quite the opposite; they become emboldened, arrogant and cocooned. They recruit followers and admirers. They start to think they’re unstoppable because the number of people standing against them appears to shrink. Rather than turn the other cheek and let them consolidate their power, we should instead take the fight to them.

Maybe I’m blinkered by my own privilege here – and I have to own this and accept I have advantages, but I see this as all the more reason to speak. In fact, those with the most privilege have a responsibility to stand up. If we presently can’t hear the voices of the marginalised, we should amplify them with our own. There are so many people who don’t feel as if they can make their voices heard because they’re afraid to do so, because it’s too risky for them to put their necks on the line. This is partly why I still stand by my support for the ‘no-platforming’ of those who spread hate speech; urging that we answer the rhetoric of the intolerant still does not mean that we should facilitate the expression of their poison. I’m sure some will see contradiction between those two notions – I, rather, see nuance.

Our aim should not be to speak for others, but to speak up about the fact that we can’t hear them. So many of us ignore issues that don’t affect us or say ‘that’s not my fight’. If you care for equality, then every fight should be your fight. This doesn’t mean that a load of privileged people should swoop down on every issue and, in the most patronising and condescending way possible, ‘sort everything out’ – no. What it means is that they should use their voices, always, to show what many of us realise: that we, not the loud mouths and bigots who exploit intolerance and damage equality, are in the majority. Let’s no longer silence ourselves; let’s say that loud and proud.

Picture by M0tty

Follow Jonathan on Twitter (@gaes_elskhugi)

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