Silence is Violence: Why Using Our Voice Matters

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Danielle Johnson

October 18, 2016

This weekend, to beat the heat, I went down to my family’s lake house. My great-grandfather built a cabin on a lake and it’s been in our family ever since. My uncle invited a family going through a hard time to spend the weekend. It was a grandmother and grandfather with three young boys.

I don’t know these people. They were staying until Sunday, and they were not my guests. They were my uncle’s, who I don’t particularly get along with. I say these things because they’re important details for what happened next.

As I was sitting there enjoying the book I was reading, the grandfather and the three boys were playing in and near the water. The second oldest boy obviously didn’t want to go in all the way, and was standing by the water’s edge. I then heard what the grandfather was saying to try to get him in.

“C’mon, girl.” The grandfather goaded the boy. “Get in the water, girl.” It was very clear by his tone of voice that calling the boy a “girl” was meant to be an insult and he would stop calling him that once he got into the water.

And I. just. froze.

In that moment, I had two choices. I could say nothing, and let it go, seeing as I didn’t know them and didn’t want to offend anyone. I didn’t want my parents or my uncle to be mad at me for creating issues with a guest. Or I could choose to say something to him and then subsequently make a scene. So, I chose to say nothing.

But once the moment had passed, I realized that I had done some serious damage by not speaking out.

Unless something changes, that boy is going to grow up to believe (or at the very least have an idea) that girls are weak. That boy is going to believe that being a girl is the worst thing that you can be. He will believe that girls don’t matter as much as men do, and should be treated as such…that having any feminine qualities will make him less worthy, and in order to be seen as a viable man he must be masculine all the time.

This weekend, I chose my own comfortability over having an educational moment. I chose comfortability over being uncomfortable for a few minutes. I chose comfortability before I chose my own identity. I chose to be comfortable instead of speaking up for myself and for women everywhere. Instead, I allowed a moment to happen that continued the cycle of my own oppression and the oppression of women everywhere, and a moment that hurt men and masculinity too.

We make these choices every day. We can either speak out or remain silent. Sometimes, our surroundings and our other identities play into our decisions. Sometimes it may not be safe for a woman of color or LGBTQ+ women to speak out in certain situations. In my situation, I would have been dealing with an angry grandparent and my uncle, who I am already not on the best terms with, and someone with whom that my dad is trying to have a better relationship.

But here’s the issue: my life wasn’t on the line. I was safe. As I mentioned, it would have been uncomfortable, but I believe I would have ultimately been okay. I think the issue was it didn’t feel okay in the moment. After some reflecting, I know I should have said something.

I try to teach my students all the time that words really do hurt and have meaning. Somehow we have created a society where “free speech” means you should be able to say whatever you want and not have to take responsibility for it. People don’t want to believe that they have that much impact. But everyone’s voice matters. Just because you intend for something to come out one way doesn’t absolve you of the impact you have on other people. Along these same lines, people believe that speaking up won’t have an effect anyway. I could have said something and the boy could have grown up believing all the wrong things about women anyway…but we’ll never know, because I didn’t even try.

After the Pulse nightclub shooting, I vowed to myself that I would speak up even more than usual when hearing or seeing prejudice. I began posting things on social media that I have never posted before for fear of what I would look like to other people. I began commenting on people’s posts that I disagreed with in order to create a dialogue with them. I have posted articles, videos, anything to educate people on what’s going on in the world. I’ve tried to use my voice. This situation taught me that I still have a long way to go. It’s one thing to do it on social media. It’s another thing entirely in real life.

I share this story because I want us all to remember that we have a choice. When safety is not at stake, we have a choice to speak up or be silent. We have a choice to break the cycle or allow it to continue. No instance is too small. Silence is violence. I don’t want to be violent any longer.

Danielle Johnson is a Resident Director at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, MA. She received her Master's in Educational Leadership from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA and her B.A. in English from Keene State College in Keene, NH. Within student affairs, Danielle's passions include social justice, leadership development, and academic success. To follow her on Twitter: @dani_a_johnson and to read her musings:

(image courtesy of Silence is Violence)

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