Header image: “Silence” by Henry Burrows. CC BY-SAThere are few things in life more fraught than talking about what makes us who we are in public–and even more so if those things are also sources of oppression or marginalization.
Something that often compounds that vulnerability are tactics designed to shame or bully people into silence when they do speak out–even if they are only sharing our lived experience and not calling anyone out.
There are some techniques you can use to maintain your right to speak, but first, let’s talk about what silencing is and is not.
What is silencing?
Silencing is a type of verbal harassment or intimidation intended to distract, minimize, or discourage you from speaking out. The ultimate goal is to control the larger conversation by ensuring that not all voices are heard or are able to speak.
Silencing is not:
- Moderated or deleted comments
- Refusal to engage
- Reporting harassment or code of conduct violations
Silencing tactics are most often deployed by members of dominant groups to quash dissent.
However, just as troubling, they are also used to establish hierarchies at the intersections of different marginalizations and oppressions and it is this use of silencing tactics that I’ll be focusing on here.
I want to be very clear: I am not talking about calling out someone with more privilege . I am talking specifically about the growing tendency of marginalized people using these tactics against each other.
There is a scarcity mindset when it comes to visibility and authority that I believe works against the interests of marginalized and oppressed people and communities.
This scarcity mindset not only inhibits participation, but I also believe it actively inhibits growth. By making the conversation larger, we can encourage new voices and new modes of being–but not if we intentionally limit ourselves.
As Joanna Russ says in How To Suppress Women’s Writing, the most interesting stuff is on the margins: “…growth only occurs at the edges of something […] But to even see the peripheries, it seems, you have to be on them, or by an act of re-vision, place yourself there.” (Russ 132)
I’ll be talking about four specific silencing tactics: tone policing, moving the goalposts, oppression olympics, and dogpiling– then I’ll give you some tips for dealing with them.
Four Common Silencing Tactics
I think most people are familiar with this one, but just in case you aren’t: this is the one where you’re too angry, shrill, or mean. Where if you were just a little bit nicer that people might listen to you. The way you spoke is given over the substance of your message. Too often, the focus becomes your emotion and not your content.
It is not possible to say difficult or uncomfortable things in a way that will be quiet enough or nice enough for people inclined to police your tone.
The ultimate goal of this strategy is to redirect and refocus the conversation in such a way to silence the speaker. It also suggests that people distance themselves from their emotions–and yet being able to do that is, in and of itself, a privilege. Calls for civility and calm are nearly always disingenuous attempts to control the conversation. Being able to consider a subject a “debate” or being able to play “devil’s advocate” is also a sure sign of privilege and incoming tone policing.
Moving the Goalposts
Goalpost moving (or shifting) is another kind of derailing intended to change the conversation.
This tactic relies on exploiting your good faith. The goalpost-mover will often ask for additional information or subtly change the focus of the conversation in order to send you down a variety of rabbit holes–and when you emerge, you will discover that conditions have changed yet again. This is intended to keep you on uneven footing and trapped in a defensive position so that you will eventually concede the point or “agree to disagree”.
As with tone policing, it is not possible to satisfy all criteria or requests for additional information. The goalposts will always be on the move. An ancillary goal of this strategy may be to provoke you into an emotional outburst–so your interlocutor can then also police your tone and pretend to claim that they were just “testing your hypothesis.” Which is bullshit.
Oppression is not a game and it’s not the latest installment in the Highlander series; there is more than one way to have an experience or identity and more than one way to express them.
This tactic is most often used between groups of marginalized or oppressed people in order to prove that one group has a greater right to speak or to a platform than others. Oppression olympics often ignores intersectionality unless it can be leveraged to weaponize identities, experiences, or opinions.
Oppression olympic arguments are quite often personal attacks. They are characterized by one marginalized person or oppressed group’s lived experience being privileged over another in order to create or maintain a hierarchy of oppression. It is fallacious to privilege one kind of oppression over another–we don’t need to oppress other people in order to validate ourselves.
There are, of course, conversations in which certain types of marginalizations or oppressions must be centered over others–depending on the conversation, someone may be marginalized along one axis and privileged along another. In those cases, it’s important to figure out if what’s happening is actually oppression olympics or if you’re attempting to leverage your privilege to dominate the conversation.
This is really challenging to discern sometimes, especially as identities intersect and overlap and much depends on context. In conversations among marginalized persons the heart of this technique’s use centers on policing whether or not participants are “enough” of something to speak or be heard.
Dogpiling is the most difficult tactic to define because it’s the one that leaves very little tangible evidence behind–the target cannot point to a single instance and use it as evidence of being silenced. Dogpiling is a pattern of behavior by a group of people–any one instance appears harmless or annoying at best, but the accumulation is what gives this tactic its power and gives its orchestrators plausible deniability. It employs other silencing tactics, including tone policing, moving goalposts, and oppression olympics.
Dogpiling is a sustained effort to attack your reputation or character. This is what happened to the women who were targeted by GamerGate supporters, but it’s also hounding someone off a social media platform for no reason other than a disagreement about fandoms. Or deciding that one ill-considered comment erases months or years of work on the community’s behalf instead of being a momentary lapse of judgement.
The line between righteous collective anger and dogpiling is often blurry and ill-defined–and someone intent on inciting a mob will exploit this fuzziness to its fullest potential. But there are a few obvious signs:
- Greater social media reach or influence on the part of the inciter
- Failure to retract or apologize when new information or clarification is provided
- Personal attacks or reframing the attacker as the “real” target
If someone claims to be punching sideways, if they refuse to back down or apologize when they are told they have incorrect information, or if they persistently turn the argument back to you and your alleged misdeeds, then there’s an excellent chance they’re either attempting to incite dogpiling or are participating in one.
It’s rarely easy.
Sharing your experience of oppression or marginalization is exposing a vulnerability and is often done in the hope of making a connection with other people (pain shared is, so often, pain lessened). And once you’ve done that, all sorts of people are questioning you–including those you thought would have your back.
It’s completely discouraging and you might want to go hide.
Hiding is a completely valid option.
So is curating a collection of GIFs that express the lack of fucks you give or asking friends to tweet pictures of cute animals at you.
Unfortunately, most social media platforms will not help you combat aggressive attempts to silence your voice–in fact, they may have interfaces and functionality which makes it astonishingly easy for people to try to make you doubt yourself.
If you have the energy for it, you may also wish to investigate if this is part of a pattern of behavior. If it is, your best bet may be to document as much as you can for your records and disengage if possible. Or ask friends to document it so you don’t have to look it.
Often, at this point, the perpetrator will attempt to escalate through continued attacks on your reputation and character, innuendo, and sometimes threats of legal action. If you call them on it directly, they may very well attempt to gaslight you or provide other “justification” for their abuse–and be assured, it is abuse.
And I’m not going to pretend that this doesn’t suck because it totally does.
I hate that I keep on having to point this out but: being marginalized or oppressed does not give you a bonus to your saving roll against being an asshole. And it’s beyond shitty to use those parts of your identity as either shields against criticism or weapons to attack others, particularly when they are trying to speak or be heard.
As Audre Lorde said:
For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. (Lorde 112)
Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110-114. 2007. Print.
Russ, Joanna. How To Suppress Women’s Writing. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1983. Print.