But the danger [here] of words in their theoretical insignificance is perhaps that they claim to evoke the annihilation where all sinks always, without hearing the “be silent” addressed to those who have known only partially, or from a distance the interruption of history.—Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster
Silence is violence. It’s a sentiment that increasingly haunts many people, who feel pressured into posting about global and national violence on social media. Silence, of course, is determinedly not violence. Silence is silence. Certainly, in some instances, silence can be equated with complicity. Take for example the Germans under the Nazi regime who watched their Jewish neighbours being taken from their homes without ever intervening or speaking up. One might argue that silence in such a case transforms the bystander into an accomplice—but most scholars admit that speaking up might have meant death. The question, then, is the degree to which silence can truly equal collusion. Even in the most cut-and-dried scenarios, that silence is complicity is not so certain.
To equate silence not simply with complicity, but with actual violence, is even more problematic. This manipulative reframing is designed to force people into making statements they may not agree with. It functions as a barely disguised command that one align oneself publicly with the dominant ideology—heterodoxy be damned!—a reminder that silence always signals guilt. While one might argue that the equation of silence to violence does not suppress speech literally, it is a blatant suppression of freedom of expression, of the right to choose whether or not to express one’s opinion, an attempt to force one to signal under duress that one is on the “right” side of the issue at hand. After all, when the silence is violence missive is launched, the expectation is always that adherence to a certain ideology must be expressed publicly by its intended target shortly thereafter. Bullying takes many shapes—this is one of its most toxic forms.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when the idea was first deployed, but the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, riots and hysterical social media proclamations about supporting black lives (by bravely posting black squares, for example) and condemning white supremacy formed a recognisable starting point in its recent trajectory. Infographics asserting that silence is violence have since flooded social media every time there has been an incident that progressive social justice advocates feel should be unilaterally condemned by all right-thinking people. It has become not just a tool to raise awareness, but a weapon used against those who are reticent about posting publicly on hot-button topics, or who may find the subject too complex to be captured in a tweet, meme or infographic. But, just as no one wants to be called a racist, no one wants to be accused of committing or abetting violence. Many of us will do whatever it takes to avoid either charge. And so, in the ten seconds needed to post a prepared statement against the injustice of the day, we ensure that our reputation is intact and that we are safe from accusations of perpetuating violence in a world already torn asunder by violences both real and imagined.
What I find particularly troubling about the movement against the right to remain silent is that it is grounded in a perpetual misapplication of the word trauma. For the silence is violence crowd, failure to speak out against an injustice extends and deepens the victim’s trauma. Solecisms of this kind became more common during the Trump presidency, but the trend has since reached its pinnacle in the very real and ongoing rash of violent hate crimes against members of the black, Asian, Jewish and other minority communities in the US.
A parent at my son’s school worked herself into a panic after discovering that a fellow parent had voted for Donald Trump. She described the trauma of having been in the same room as a Trump supporter without knowing it and, later, the trauma and pain she experienced when I myself wrote an article suggesting that some of the ideas advanced by Ibram X. Kendi were flawed. She knew that claiming pain and traumatic injury would immediately position her viewpoint as superior to that of others. For some, her claim to trauma immediately superseded and invalidated my expert opinion on a controversial topic.
Humans learn quickly. And over the past few years, we have been taught that any subjective claim to have experienced trauma is indicative of real trauma. No wonder the word has taken centre stage in so many conversations, both public and private. But trauma—a word whose definition is still debated by both researchers and clinicians—is not something with which to play fast and loose. “Not all stressful events involve trauma,” explains the DSM-5. Trauma requires “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence … Stressful events not involving an immediate threat to life or physical injury such as psychosocial stressors”—for example divorce, a job loss or even an illness—“are not considered trauma in this definition.”
In other words, any claim to have experienced trauma because you were exposed to a different opinion or because you bumped shoulders with someone whose ideological impulses are different from yours is highly suspect. Genuine trauma is often characterised by a person’s inability to speak about what one has suffered or witnessed.
Twelve years ago, I taught a course at UCLA dealing with collective trauma (groups of people experiencing trauma simultaneously) and how it shows up in literature, film and popular culture. At the time, I was a postdoctoral fellow in a programme called The Holocaust in World Culture, and so, while much of my scholarship and teaching had focused on Holocaust representation and trauma studies, this class ended with two weeks on representations of 9/11 in film and literature. At the time, only a few novels had broached the topic in a sophisticated and compelling manner. Don DeLillo’s Falling Man had recently been published, as had Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, both of which remain bright stars in an otherwise mostly mediocre literary space.
But, as important as the literary texts were to the class, more important was the discovery of my students’ hidden trauma connected to the 9/11 catastrophe, and their accompanying sense of guilt. In 2001, most of my students had been between seven and ten years old—not quite old enough to understand and fully process what was going on, but old enough to know that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong in their world. In the days following the events of 9/11, we were inundated with videos and images of death and destruction. The footage of a man jumping to his death to avoid being burned alive was embedded in many of our minds—although later an ethical consensus developed that the video should no longer be shown on television. We watched this unknown man falling over and over and over. It is itself an experience of second-hand trauma to bear witness to such a horrific moment over and over again.
I asked my students to close their eyes and think about their first memories of 9/11.
“There was no recess that day,” one student began. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, and something in his face and in the way his shoulders pulled in toward his neck told me there was more to be said. And so I waited. “I’m sorry,” he said, his face red and his countenance showing signs of distress. “I was really upset because there was no recess. It was going to be an extra long recess but they sent us all home instead. There was no recess.” Still, I waited. “I know that’s not what you’re looking for,” he finished.
But what was I looking for? It remains an unanswered question. But what I found was that the children of 9/11—not just in New York City, but throughout the United States—who had repeatedly borne witness to new footage and to their parents’ and caretakers’ horror—still carried the trauma of that day, to varying degrees, but felt unequipped to talk about it. This response is typical of one common way in which trauma affects us: it strips us of our ability to speak about it. As any clinical psychologist who treats children will attest, many children (and even adults) who bear witness to a collective trauma unfolding around them lack the capacity and vocabulary to talk about it. Memories of that day might instead be anchored to an abrupt change in routine or to the intense emotions of the adults around them. I think back to the day I learned, at six years old, that my grandmother, with whom I was extremely close, had been killed in a horrific car accident that was described in detail in front of me. “She was going to take me to buy a Barbie doll on Saturday,” I kept thinking, in between bouts of shame and horror. I remember barely being able to breathe at her funeral, as my mind went back and forth between the image of my grandmother’s mangled body and the Barbie doll I would not get.
Trauma is a funny thing. It generally affects people in one of two ways. There are those who talk incessantly about what happened to them, and there are those who never speak of it. Holocaust survivors are a case in point. In one class I taught, there were multiple third-generation survivors (grandchildren of Holocaust survivors). Many admitted they were taking my class because they wanted to know more about the Holocaust, the event that had shaped their grandparents’ lives, but about which they would not speak a word. Imagine being a victim of one of the twentieth century’s most horrific experiences of trauma and remaining silent. In their worlds, there was no capitalising on what they had been through or using it as a cudgel to attack rhetoric challenging their victimhood. There was only silence. Were they, too, guilty of violence?
I take issue with the new demonisation of silence in popular culture. The suppression of silence is no different than the suppression of speech. And, anyway, “to be silent is still to speak,” as French philosopher Maurice Blanchot writes. Suppressing silence is suppressing speech.
My own father, a veteran of the Vietnam War, who was wounded in the notorious battle of Hamburger Hill, talked about what he saw there every day of his life thereafter. When I was barely a teenager, he told me the story of a South Vietnamese woman who was accused of aiding the North Vietnamese Army. In retaliation, South Vietnamese soldiers forced explosives into her body before pushing her out of a helicopter: another body falling, exploding in mid-air. My father gave me that second-hand memory. I am a witness to the trauma he experienced that day and every other day in Vietnam.
I sometimes wonder if we are fighting hard enough for the right to be silent. We know from decades of trauma studies that, for many trauma survivors, the moment of trauma is not something that can be fully articulated. Even those who speak incessantly about their authentic traumas cannot truly capture the full horror of the moments in question. This is part of the reason why my father would tell the same stories over and over again. No matter how many times he retold the events, he could never fully express their barbaric nature. Blanchot describes traumatic events as “disasters,” and a disaster “escapes the very possibility of experience—it is the limit of writing.” Writers and thinkers from Giorgio Agamben to Primo Levi have commented on the ways in which language breaks down in the face of trauma.
We know that trauma is transmitted in various ways to the next generation. The most often cited example is that of a parent who was abused in childhood, who repeats the abuse with his or her own children. But sometimes the transmission of trauma is nearly invisible, but is still written on the DNA. In her excellent book Haunting Legacies, Gabriele Schwab suggests that it is not just victims who inherit trauma, but perpetrators, and that such an inheritance can last for generations. When Americans talk about the Native American genocide, for example, the idea is that even generations later we are responsible for the collective trauma experienced by indigenous people long ago, and that we must acknowledge this. This gives us an opportunity to reflect on what we inherit not just through biology but through our national origin, and on our ethical responsibilities going forward.
But such practices take a dark turn when they are used to force people to make statements they disagree with, or to publicly admit guilt for something that happened generations ago. For example, many schools, organisations and businesses require all meetings to begin with an acknowledgment that the lands on which the meeting is taking place belong to indigenous peoples. We are reminded that silence is violence: vocal admission of guilt with regard to land theft is apparently all it takes to cleanse oneself of such inherited transgressions. The words are empty, of course, because the land will not be given back. The country—whether it’s the United States or Canada or anywhere else—will not be dismantled and returned to the people from whom it was stolen. Rather than an exercise in assuming ethical responsibility, this is mere virtue signalling.
Similarly, the idea propounded by Ibram Kendi, that one can be only a racist or an anti-racist—the option of being simply a decent human being who is not a racist is not available—that increasingly permeates educational, corporate and even government institutions is yet another futile exercise in suppression of speech. One may not challenge the binary: one must not say that one is neither a racist nor an anti-racist (trust me: I’ve tried), because it challenges the mantra that compels the rest of us to march along to the beat or be labelled complicit. A “white” or light-skinned person must habitually admit to her role in upholding white supremacy, continually acknowledge her part in systemic racism. A private Facebook group I belong to includes a non-white woman who is a successful young academic who was educated at elite institutions. For the past year, she has been posting demands that people pay her money through a Venmo account as part of the “real work” of fighting racial injustice. Silence may be violence—but apparently so is not paying up when someone claims that her trauma demands it.
In progressive discourse, the word trauma is everywhere. This is not to say that trauma does not exist; nor that, in a world still in the clutches of a pandemic that has killed millions of people and kept children and elderly people in particular isolated from their peers, there is not a real need for the understanding and treatment of trauma. But the widespread abuse of the term will be catastrophic. Trauma-centred education, for instance, advocates teaching all children through a trauma-focused lens. This can be helpful in some cases. But while some teachers understand it as one of many tools in their arsenal, others use it to remind students of colour that they are victims: recipients and inheritors of trauma. The word trauma has come to be weaponised: it permits no contradiction when intoned by anyone who is not a white male (and the days of white women are also numbered). Among many other consequences, this has the effect of stifling free speech.
I’ve heard from several Instagram influencer friends recently about how they are being pressured to speak out about the Israel–Gaza conflict. Most have said nothing other than to mourn the loss of lives on both sides and pray for peace; but their audiences have demanded that they take a hard-line position about a conflict taking place on the other side of the world, about which they know nothing. I respect those with large platforms who resist demands to speak on topics on which they have no knowledge or expertise. Sometimes silence is a way of pushing back against individuals and organisations that demand we proclaim our allegiance to their political or social agendas. Social media warriors demand that we say her name or say his name, and argue that failure to do so amounts to complicity. But sometimes silence is the most ethical and reasonable way of speaking. Sometimes silence is not a continuation of violence, but the most authentic response to it. As Blanchot notes, “It is upon losing what we have to say that we speak.” There is power in silence, in refusing to adopt speech meant to divide. Are we surprised that there are those who would take even that from us?