Sunday, April 18, 2010

Days of silence and lost voices

Last Friday was the annual Day of Silence, the day when gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered persons, etc., and allies are asked not to speak in order to make clear how their voices so often go unheard. Now, I believe that I have opined on the strangeness of this before—among other things, it seems strange to me that I, of course, have to speak on such days while well-meaning straight allies can take a stand against an oppression they have never felt by refusing to speak in class: I don't have the option of being silent—but the bigger problem with the very concept of a day of silence is the way that it addresses a problem by exacerbating the same problem.
Contrast a day of silence with walkouts. Take, for instance, the idea of a day without Mexicans popularized in southern California. Such a walkout makes an impact. It does this by addressing the way the presence of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans (and other Latin Americans) is ignored by replacing it with absence: you don't see us when we are here, notice us when we are not and are not doing the jobs you need done! This was also the old strategy of homemakers going on strike: you think I do nothing, wait until I do nothing!
A day of silence, it seems, should work this way, but it differs importantly. In a walkout, there is valued work that goes undone and so is missed. It is only in its absence that the presence is noticed. In a day of silence, the very claim is that the voice (not merely the work or the presence) of a group is ignored and undervalued and so the response is to not speak. But, if the voice is not valued or noticed, to withdraw it is to acquiesce to that very ignoring and disvaluing. 
But why doesn't its absence in this case draw attention to its presence? I think because gays and lesbians and transgendered people are never going to be a large enough group or a concentrated enough group in any university or college or other institution to be missed on one day. (Sure musical theater might disappear without gays and the LPGA might cease to exist without lesbians—of course, I am kidding—but this is not like the effect on agriculture or construction that would be felt if we really did deport everyone with a questionable immigration history.) 
So what is better? If there is too little recognition of speech and voice, put so much voice and speech out that it cannot be ignored. Make them pay attention; don't be silent.

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