There are few things that communicate as much and as ambiguously as silence. We read worlds into silence, a communication practice that has been driven to perverse extremes by social media-driven forms of sociality. It seems we are all expected to be simultaneously raging into the void—all the time. Against the backdrop of unceasing ambient talk, the choice to be silent on an issue of public debate can be, as the saying goes, deafening.
Over the past few weeks, I have crafted a number of loud silences. In each case, to hold my tongue was an uncertain and difficult choice and none were made without consequence (I have encountered more than a few cold shoulders and hostile subtweets). These choices, however, were the product of sleepless nights, difficult conversations, and the constant reevaluation of my core values. One of those values is to look, honestly, for the reasons that drive other people’s decisions (especially when I do not understand them) and to be transparent about my own. And so, I am making good on the second half of that statement by offering here the reasons I have recently chosen silence it when seems the stakes are highest. To be more specific, I have chosen not to add my voice to the chorus of public anger and outrage around a number of recent incidents in the craft beer community for reasons that span the personal, the theoretical, the strategic, and the ethical.
The Personal: With Privilege Comes the Responsibility to Understand One’s Capacity to Do Harm
About a decade ago, I vowed to change the way I engage with just about everything and everyone around me. I am not hyperbolizing; this was some post-near-death experience spiritual awakening level shit. It was a result of a serious confrontation with my privilege.
When I talk about this to people who know me, I am generally greeted with confusion. I am a black, queer, woman who lived most of my childhood in a single-parent household whose stability was frequently undermined by an undiagnosed mental illness. “Privilege” is not the first word that comes to mind when looking at my demographic stat-sheet. Nonetheless, I have always enjoyed access to quality (if not elite) education. And though I struggle with shame even as I share this, I will be unambiguous about my past choices. I unquestionably used my privilege to further myself in ways that harmed others. I used my intelligence and (more specifically) my access to institutionalized education deemed to be of high quality to make distance between myself and marginalized aspects of my own identity, especially my blackness. I used my privilege to brutally attack any and all perceived transgressions against me or people like me.
Of course, when I was sparring with those I felt entirely confident in labelling ignorant racists or hate-filled homophobes, I felt justified. If I am honest, I felt more than justified. I felt that I was an irreplaceable soldier on the front lines, part of the vanguard of the cause. Most problematically, I clung to the armor of my marginalized identities (even as I constantly disavowed them) and convinced myself in the blazing inferno of my righteous rage (the standard mode of operation in my graduate school community) that I did not have any privilege to confront.
That first look in the mirror was devastating.
Because I saw that in using my privilege in this way—in using it to great effect while simultaneously denying its existence—I was no better than the oppressors I spent all of my time critiquing. I did not stop at calling attention to problematic communication, I used critique to belittle and dehumanize communicators with whom I disagreed. I did not limit myself to responding to personal attacks or issues relevant to my life or career, I actively policed everything I saw, looking for targets upon which I could unload as fast and as furiously as I could manage. I wielded a great deal of moral superiority with the grace and nuance of a jackhammer.
Ten years ago, after something of an identity crisis, I came to terms with the fact that I cannot trust myself to intelligently fight the good fight with the sharp edge of critique. For months after this realization, I was lost. In what I now see in retrospect as an incredibly telling moment, I simply did not know what to do. I did not know how to be an activist or advocate that did not make critique my primary mode of engagement.
“Slowly and deliberately, I have turned my energy away from policing to problem-solving,” which has become the core of my activism and advocacy, of my teaching, of my parenting, and now of my equity and inclusion work. That statement was partially adapted from another blog post. What follows is quoted more or less directly:
"I realize there are benefits and drawbacks…my responses to pressing issues often feel neutered, so measured that they float above the ethical and political stances I intend to take. I appear to pander, to be unwilling to be boldly upsetting when the moment requires. I let the air out of important conversations that need internal pressure to continue. I create more questions than answers. I accept these inevitabilities with the confidence that there is no shortage of soldiers in the cause who continue to fight with the sharp edge of critique. Though I have chosen to lay down that blade, I recognize its necessity. I have simply come to accept that in my hands, for too long, it was a weapon carelessly wielded."
The Theoretical: -Isms and -Phobias are Structural, Not Personal
Academics, particularly in the social-sciences, exist in relation to a bizarre sort of intellectual genealogy that those outside of academia are rarely aware of. Within each discipline, there is a tremendous amount variation in worldview, theoretical commitments, research methodologies, and pedagogical practice. That is to say, there is as much difference between me and some scholars of Communication and Cultural Studies as there is between me and scholars in Chemistry or Classics. No doubt, some of you will understand the significance of me saying that I was trained by a member of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies (Larry Grossberg was my advisor). But for most, who (rightfully) have no interest in the Byzantine politics of academia, my intellectual training has shaped the way I understand the social and cultural world in three important ways.
1) I use radical contextualism as a lens for understanding culture. Radical contextualism is the claim that, “the identity, significance, and effects of any practice or event (including cultural practices and events) are defined only by the complex set of relations that surround, interpenetrate, shape it, and make it what it is. No element can be isolated from its relations, although those relationships can be changed, and are constantly changing.”  Thus, I believe that every crisis, every significant happening, has its own set of unique, ungeneralizable contextual factors. And importantly, seeing the world in this way requires that one invest time and effort in tracing the relations (or assembling the context)—time generally invested before drawing conclusions from which to speak.
2) I am an anti-essentialist. My commitment to radical contextualism does not mean that I believe everything is subjective (it, in fact, means quite the opposite). It means that I accept that anything that has and will happen is a product of numerous conditions of possibility. These are not “causes,” rather they are the elements of context that make any given practice or event possible. For example, the invention of the internal combustion engine did not a cause the automotive industry to emerge, but it was almost certainly an important condition of possibility (along with many others). The bottom line is, I do not believe in necessary connections. I believe that generalization is counterproductive to deep understanding—and that when I cannot speak with the specificity of deep understanding, it is important for me to remain silent.
3) I believe power is structural and pervasive. Though “hate” is commonly a frame used to denounce inequality and injustice, I believe it is a poor one that limits the efficacy of social justice work. “Hate” renders injustice and oppression matters of interpersonal conflict on a large scale. “Hate” makes power relations personal. But one only need to draw upon the last 250 years of American history to see that injustice and oppression are the result of unequal power relations that are so deeply codified into our social and cultural institutions that they structure what we understand to be “the norm”—and in being so, these unequal power relations masquerade as ethically neutral. That is to say, inequality persists precisely because it is not personal.
Therein lies a terrible conundrum, the practice of injustice in everyday life (whether intentional or not) wounds on a deeply personal level. It is, on one hand, natural and necessary to allow these wounds to speak, to make known the inherent violence of injustice; and on the other hand, shifting discussions of injustice from the realm of the structural to the domain of the personal, centers the question of intent. “I did not mean to wound you,” becomes a perfectly valid response to wounding when it is framed interpersonally.
Pain is an unquestionably personal experience and I will not suggest that anyone should have a relationship with the pain of racism, sexism, homophobia, or classism that resembles my own. However, I have chosen not to speak of or from my wounds (no matter how deeply they cut or how painfully they fester) in the interest of keeping the conversations I engage in focused on the structural nature of power. (And yes, I am aware of precisely how problematic the assumption of this kind of emotional labor is. Don’t @ me.)
Grossberg, L (2010). Cultural studies in the future tense. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
The Strategic: The Revolution Will Not Be Standardized
I will take a guess that many who have made it this far are teeming with “buts…”. But to remain silent, to leave -isms and -phobias unchecked is an act of complicity. But the personal IS political. But I am angry and hurt and to silence these things in the service of someone else’s comfort is yet another way that institutional power oppresses—it delegitimizes even the personal pain of the “other.”
Yes. I emphatically agree.
My understanding of social formations like racism and sexism—how they are continuously made and remade—informs my belief in how they must be engaged. I believe they must be continuously disassembled through a wide range of coordinated efforts. Contrary to what the overly simplistic “hate” framing of structural -isms and -phobias would suggest, there are myriad conditions of possibility that have contributed to the institutionalization of these insidious social logics. In fact, one might understand the number and diversity of these conditions of possibility to be the means by which -isms and -phobias remain so “sticky.” Undo the work of one condition of possibility and there are still innumerable others actively working to rearticulate racism, sexism, homophobia, classism (and many other -isms and -phobias) to the set of practices and cultural logics that define the American norm.
For this reason, I believe that any social movement that hopes to be successful must adopt a comparable breadth of activist tactics and that this necessitates a division of labor and the strategic use of talent. Thus, I am not suggesting that everyone leave behind critique. Recognition and thoughtful criticism of the products of injustice is absolutely critical. Rather, I am suggesting that critique is not the most productive use of everyone's time—in fact, I know from personal experience that for some, critique can be dangerous, poorly executed, self-destructive, and counterproductive. Perhaps controversially, I also disagree with the suggestion that everyone needs to be a vocal critic to prove that they are a "true" member or ally of the cause. (And yes, I am aware that this provides a convenient out for those who do not have the moral courage to stand up for what is right when it is risky or uncomfortable to do so. I also recognize that there are those who would game the systems that provide social assistance programs like SNAP and Medicaid...and I still think social assistance programs are a great idea. Don't @ me.)
I have unassailable confidence that this function is being undertaken by others—better and more skillfully than I could ever manage. But I also have serious concerns that the cause of social justice is suffering from a lack of tactical and strategic diversity—that we prioritize criticism and blame-assignment over problem-solving, organizing, nurturing, coalition-building, self-reflection, creativity, consciousness-raising, strategic planning, recording history, performing analysis, educating, and more. I see the project of social justice as one of the most important organizational efforts of our time and, as such, take from the lessons of dozens of successful organizations. We cannot all be doing the same thing. We must use talent efficiently. We cannot waste time micromanaging each other.
We must trust in our collectivity.
The Ethical: The Impossible Project of Radical Compassion
For more than 2,000 words, I have reckoned with harm—the relationship between harm and privilege, the harm caused by manifestations of injustice in the world, the degree to which activist strategies can be helpful or harmful to the broader cause of social justice. With any discussion of the existence of, or potential to do, harm comes a necessary consideration of ethics. Whether it is the product of my thoroughly Western education or some malformed idealism, I have a deeply rooted ethical drive and, above all other grounding commitments, “do no harm” resonates with my worldview and my individual experience most profoundly. (And yes. I know I am not that kind of doctor. Don't @ me.)
For this reason, about ten years ago, I vowed to engage with just about everything and everyone around me by leading with radical compassion. Because there is some ambiguity around this term, I will define what it means to me:
- Deprioritizing the finding of fault and prioritizing the development of mutually workable solutions;
- Attending to the underlying fears, needs, and desires that drive behavior;
- Cultivating collaboration and connection through meaningful understanding and perspective-taking;
- Illuminating pathways to redemption; and
- Accepting that vulnerability and personal injury are inevitabilities when engaging the world in this way.
I will be the first to admit that I really suck at this, because it’s hard. However, I take my failures and shortcomings as opportunities to grow and get better. I recognize that I will probably never achieve the standard for radical compassion that I just articulated. I am too angry, too insecure, too prone to sarcasm and cynicism. And then again...these are the main reasons committing to what is likely a Sisyphean goal will be productive for me.
With all of this said, I continue to ask myself if my silences might be taken as tacit approval of acts that, by all appearances, are born of and perpetuate injustice. Or if by not speaking out on these incidents, as comment after comment fill my Twitter timeline and email inbox, I am communicating that these issues are unimportant. Said another way, I am wrestling with whether or not my silences are doing harm. For now, I believe that the potential for my silences to harm is far smaller than the harm I might do by speaking in spite of my better judgment. Whether this remains the case in the future can only be determined when the future arrives—after a methodical (and likely silent) consideration of that particular context and the ethical questions that are brought to bear.
Thanks to those who have engaged in productive dialogue with me in recent weeks as I have wrestled with these issues. You may recognize snippets of tweets, email exchanges, phone calls, and long conversations over beers. You have my sincerest gratitude.