Silence isn’t golden. It’s a weapon of disempowerment

Silence isn’t golden. It’s a weapon of disempowerment

By Joyce Fegan

“Whatever you say, say nothing,” could be the unconscious motto of this frail State. 

Seamus Heaney immortalised this line in his 1975 poem of the same name. He was addressing the “tight gag” of silence of 1970s Northern Ireland.

Forty years or so on, issues have, thankfully, changed on this island, but our approach, so often, has not.

As the Dáil gets back to business, the most pressing issue facing this country and our government is housing: Banks disposing of bad loans, courts hearing repossession cases, rising rents and a pinched-tight rental market, and, of course, those 10,000 citizens living in emergency accommodation.

In journalism, there are a few no-go areas. Domestic abuse? It is next to impossible to find a willing interviewee, whose face and name do not have to be removed from the story.

Sexual assault? With only 8% of victims reporting to gardaí, try finding someone to speak out publicly about that ordeal. They most likely blame themselves.

Abortion? Save for the few brave faces who told their stories in the lead-up to the referendum on the Eighth Amendment, it’s another no-go area.

These are just some of the issues we’ve loaded with shame and locked away with silence.

But it was always easy to find a willing interviewee who was homelessness, unafraid of a backlash or a public-shaming. 

In fact, the national response was always the opposite. 

Once the story ran, there would be this spontaneous, as if synchronised, outpouring of traditional Irish kindness: In the form of nappies and clothes, food and children’s toys. 

Silence isn’t golden. It’s a weapon of disempowerment

Unlike in other countries, where prayers got offered, we liked to get practical. But not anymore.

Somewhere, over the course of the last four or five years, we seem to have lost our once innate capacity for kindness. 

Where we once rushed to helpfulness, we now rush to judgement. Worse, we rush to condemnation.

And it’s not government policy that’s at fault. No, that’s far too complex an issue to hashtag in outrage, the problem is ‘these people’ having babies. 

How dare you bring life into this world, unless you are well-educated, suitably-heeled, and double-salaried?

The problem is not the lack of regulation in the private rental market; no, no, it’s actually ‘these people’, who didn’t put enough money aside ‘to buy.’ 

And the problem is not Fine Gael’s unwillingness to invest in social housing; no, the problem is that ‘these people’, who maybe lost their bricklaying job in the crash, dare to own such a luxury item as a mobile phone — and them meant to be poor.

And you let them know how you feel, don’t you? You do what I am doing now, and you sit down at your keyboard and you type. 

You let them have it on Facebook and Twitter. You let all that hate and anger and vitriol spew out. 

And you think you’re right and maybe you feel empowered for a while. 

But the difference between you and me is that I cannot put words out there without my name and face attached. Anonymity, distance, lack of accountability — they’re your little luxuries.

This backlash of hate and public shaming is what happened to one of our homeless citizens and her children during the summer — as if brutally condemning and humiliating her was going to house 10,000 people, neutralise negative equity, and build 81,000 homes by 2020. 

But it did no such thing. It helped no one, not that citizen and her children, nor the crisis looming large.

All that mindless, misdirected hatred managed to achieve was silence.

Silence is a weapon.

Silence has been both an enemy and a tool of this State.

Silence has never served us as a people.

Silence does not solve problems, it only let’s those in power off their elected hook.

This week, as I have done before, I went looking to talk to someone in emergency accommodation. No luck.

“No one’s talking. They’re afraid to, after you know, what happened.”

This is new territory, this fear to talk out on the issue.

And so, just like that, we’ve resorted to our old friend silence.

Silence isn’t golden. It’s a weapon of disempowerment

Mary McGill, a researcher in NUI Galway, talked about the concept of “weaponised silence” earlier this year, in the context of the Catholic Church, and how it has “devastated so many lives across this country.”

In this context, of housing and homelessness and structural poverty, who’s benefitting from your silence? And who’s losing out?

Upon hearing what we find uncomfortable and unpalatable, the desire to shout “just shut up” can be strong. 

If I cannot hear you and I cannot see you, that pain, that problem, must, therefore, no longer exist.

Upon voicing that which others find uncomfortable and unpalatable, and being met with condemnation and shame, the desire to shut yourself up, in order to protect whatever resilience might remain, is equally strong. 

If they cannot hear me, and they can no longer see me, then I cannot be hurt any further.

There is this myth that silence is a saviour, a protector, but never in the history of humankind has silence ever been a conduit for positive change.

To give the last word to another, this is what Mary McGill has to say about our national relationship with silence: “In a country so scarred by silence, conversations and truth-telling are a spoken revolution, forming the thousand tiny cracks that eventually fracture the whole.

“Enforced silence is a way to keep people from each other, to lock them into their individual suffering, sure in their shame that no-one else could possibly understand. 

"Incredible things happen when people refuse to be imprisoned this way.”

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