Privilege Means Choosing Silence

Chloe Vassot, Contributing Writer

To speak has always been a political act.

The urge to protect one’s right to speak, the most basic method of communication — in a way the most intimate, most direct route from your mind to another’s — is inherently understandable and incontestable. The unwavering belief in this right is part of what has been driving the ever-growing number of think-pieces criticizing colleges and students for the “policing” of free speech and the prevalence of “politically correct” speech that is beginning to dominate certain campuses.

This examination of the politics of speech is needed, but not when the goal is exclusively to find the weaknesses in our liberal arts schooling. The politics of speech, of who gets to speak and be heard and who is silenced and ignored, must be examined with the purpose of understanding how the act of speaking can shape the society we live in and the society we wish to create.

Those who denounce some of the new prevailing ideas of speaking on campus, like how the silence of those in positions of privilege and power can begin to ameliorate the historical and systematic silencing of the marginalized, decry them as an affront to personal liberty. But the concept of self-silencing also deeply offends and discomforts these critics; this sense of discomfort may be more at the core of their argument than they understand. These critics, for the most part, are accustomed to using their voices, to having an audience for their words and to being assured that, in some way, they will be not only heard, but also listened to with consideration. Any threat to this comforting status quo is understandably disconcerting to them. Funny how important it seems to fight for the right to be heard when it is finally your right that is threatened.

We live in a society that undoubtedly prizes the individual over the community, especially communities that have been historically marginalized to begin with. When individuals with the luck of inhabiting spaces of privilege revere the idea of free speech, they are not simply referring to one’s ability to utter syllables without fear of extreme mental or physical consequences. They are referring to a right to be listened to and to be understood — for their sentiments to be respected simply because they come from their particular self and thus have inherent importance.

This larger idea of the freedom of speech — a freedom of discourse and respect — is not held equally in our society. To allow this full right of speech to be held by all — by those who have been and are currently marginalized and silenced because of their race, ethnicity, gender or sex — will paradoxically require the occasional silence of the privileged others.

The reality of who speaks and is heard in our society is easily ignored. The lovely thing about many liberal arts institutions, and Oberlin especially, is that students constantly analyze and seek to dismantle these realities. They look for ways to let the unheard voices speak and keep the dominating voices quieted for the sake of reaching a representational equality.

This process does not have to require censorship, but the idea of self-silencing is abhorrent and unjust to many. But what is more unjust: For the privileged to feel the personal offense and indignity that comes with one’s thoughts being unwelcome, or the perpetuation of the system by silencing the marginalized and unheard due to the momentary discomfort of those who, whether they choose to be or not, are thus made oppressors?

The choice to stay silent is not a simple choice, but it is a necessary one.

As a woman, I am angry that I have deeply internalized the process of questioning my right to speak in almost all contexts, constantly evaluating whether my knowledge justifies the vocalization of my thoughts alongside those of my peers. Choosing to stay silent in certain contexts when I have only recently rejected the idea that my thoughts are somehow less worthy of physical manifestation feels deeply wrong, even when I know other voices deserve to be heard more urgently than mine.

But as a white person, I understand that I am not just an individual concerned only with comfort but also a part of a society that I believe will benefit from my silence.

Choosing silence is not always personally gratifying, but because of my personal privilege, I have the ability to choose silence now and believe that when I speak later, I will still be listened to. A degree of personal dissatisfaction is an almost comically minuscule portion of the degree of oppression and silence that others less lucky than myself have experienced. It’s time we, the privileged, understand that change does not come without a measure of distress.