In the aftermath of both Brexit and the US presidential elections, I’ve seen a lot of silencing. People with legitimate fears – about where they can work, live and study on the Brexit side, or about their safety on the US side, are told to shut up by too many people. You lost, get over it. I’ve seen the same pattern of response around other issues too, from the most personal to these wide social concerns.
People who express distress are labelled as whingers, fearmongers, special snowflakes, and other such derogatory terms designed to shame a person into silence. They are told they are making a fuss, and that no one wants to hear it.
So, turning this around, why do we do this? Why do we silence people? The most obvious answer is ‘because what they say makes us feel uncomfortable’. We put our comfort ahead of knowing the truth of how something impacts on someone else. It may be – and I feel certain this is true for a lot of people around Brexit – that many of us had no idea what the impact would be on others. To hear you’ve made a choice that really hurts someone you did not mean to hurt, is tough. No one enjoys that. If our egos are fragile, we may prefer to blame the victim rather than face our responsibilities.
Thinking about how we impact on other humans is not easy or comfortable territory. Nor is thinking about how we impact on animals, wildlife, or the planet. If we know where things come from, what they really cost, what died so we could have them, it can be distressing. We protect ourselves from knowing by silencing the people who are trying to tell us.
It takes courage to do differently – simply. It takes courage to let another human being speak their truth when that truth makes you uncomfortable. It takes guts to recognise that your discomfort in hearing something might not be as important as the problem the other person needs to talk about. It takes a willingness to face your own privileges and not let a sense of entitlement to ease rule your choices. In matters of US politics right now, one person’s minor discomfort is another person’s death sentence.
Honour people when they speak their truth, and do what you can to support that, even when you don’t like what they need to say. Perhaps especially then. Don’t stand by in complicit silence if you see people being told to shut up, or denigrated for their anxieties. Take a moment to think about it – because if someone is afraid that their lives will be destroyed, they probably need taking seriously. Too often, we support the people who feel mildly inconvenienced at the expense of the people who truly need our help, and we all need to work on changing this.