Silence as an Instrument of Power(lessness)

Recently a case of sexual abuse against a teacher/coach at the well-known high school in Johannesburg, Parktown Boys, was raised across a plethora of media forums. According to EWN news reports, the 22-year-old teacher/coach was arrested for “allegedly raping and sexually assaulting at least 20 pupils” (Rahlaga, 2017). Obviously this happened over some time at the school and raises the question of the role of silence in producing and maintaining relationships of power.

Silence as an act of taking power

Silence, in social theories of representation, was initially and solely related to the taking and keeping of power: when Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s reign over ancient Egypt was erased from tomb walls and scrolls, it ushered in a silence in a way that tried to remove Hatshepsut from history, politics, and influence over the future of the kingdoms. Similarly, calls for the removal of colonial monuments in South Africa and Canada have been argued to embody an attempt to quieten down the influence (the ideas, worldviews, and everyday reminders) of the oppression felt during colonisation. Such erasure is an attempt to take power – whether it be to take power for the purpose of a new rule, or the taking-back of power by those who have been oppressed.

In this sense, silence equals erasure. It follows a logic of ‘if we cannot see it, smell it, touch it, hear it, or taste its bitter effect, we cannot know it’. We reduce something to our immediate senses. And, by doing so, we reduce power to something that can determine whether or not an idea, an identity, a way of life, or even a traumatic event, can exist – can be allowed to exist. In simpler terms, things that are silenced do not exist, and therefore cannot be real.

This is evidenced in the way communities and individuals react when confronted with socially nonconforming identities such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersexed, queer (LGBTIQ+); or even people who suffer from conditions not understood as ‘real’ such as those with depression and anxiety disorders, autism and so on. In each of these cases, the community does not recognise the identity, the condition, the culture, the belief system that is different from their own normalised way of seeing and doing things as real because of a dominating silence that surrounds it. Because we do not see the people who inhabit these identities in the media, in our stories, histories or everyday talk, we think that they cannot be real. Similarly, those who are victims of rape, molestation or any other kind of physical and emotional abuse may often resort to silence because of the stigmatising effect that coming out may have. We think they must be looking for attention, making bad life decisions or being led down the wrong path (by evil others, or mythical others like the devil). We use our own incomplete logic to name and shame the people who cannot find representations of themselves in the world around them – even in simple texts and interactions.

Such representation matters because it can be difficult to imagine beyond the confines of the dominant discourses (ways of reading, writing, speaking, thinking, doing and believing) that surround us. On one hand, it means that without some kind of visibility of an identity in a society or community, that identity can easily ‘not exist’ in that community. And so, community members, when confronted with the reality of that nonconforming identity, stigmatise it just as easily. On the other hand, the person who occupies that nonconforming identity can easily begin to convince themselves that they are not meant to exist (rationalising this by the fact of the silence they experience: there is no-one else like them and they share nothing with the community around them). The silence of their actual selves results in self-hate, self-regulation in accordance with what is socially expected of them, self-denial, and potentially self-destructive behaviour. It is the silence of their identities within and without these individuals that is used to justify their own lack of worth and belonging. But, surely, this should not be the case.

Silence as the giving of power

Another way of looking at the role of silence in relationships of power is to consider how those who have been silenced, and have taken up the act of being silent, are complicit in their own subordination and erasure. This is a controversial viewpoint because it positions nonconforming individuals as partly responsible for the suffering they experience. It posits that, in being silent, one participates and ensures that they are excluded from the larger discourses of their context, and therefore reproduce and maintain the problematic power relations that make their identities and experiences invisible.

One answer to this can be taken from examples of hyper-performed nonconforming identities. Artists like Pieter Dirk Uys and television personalities such as Somizi perform an exaggerated form of gender identity, in different ways, to make their nonconformity visible in a largely heterosexist, homophobic, sexist and patriarchal context. By doing so, they make nonconformity ‘real’ to those who do not inhabit such identities, as well as for those who share, even to some degree, similar kinds of nonconformity. This is a kind of ‘breaking of the silence’.

However, to what extent does this also essentialise nonconforming identities? That is, do these examples of hyper-performed nonconforming identities maintain normative stereotypes about what it means to be nonconforming? To what extent does this enable further stigmatisation and subordination? There is, unfortunately, no clear-cut answer.

Silence and masculinity

Silence, then, is also a tool for constructing masculinities. According to Connell (1995), a leading researcher in the study of masculinities, silence is a tool for regulating masculine behaviour. Men, typically expected to perform masculinity, are meant to perform silence: do not speak of your feelings, do not share anything that presents you as less than masculine. The surrounding society usually participates in ensuring and regulating this: why are you acting like a girl?, be a man and walk it off, boys don’t do that. As a tool for regulating behaviours, and therefore worldviews, silence enables the maintenance of problematic norms. This has been confirmed in a number of studies by Msibi, Francis, Bhana and other South African researchers invested in gender and sexuality scholarship.

If silence can work in this way to gain and hold power, perhaps it will allow us to understand how the school-going boys that were affected by the abusive teacher stayed quiet for so long – and how this is not their fault. Given that Parktown boys is an old school, following an ‘old-boy’ system, the reputation of the school as developing ‘gentlemanly’ (taken from the school website: students more than likely informs its practices. As such, the school’s history of initiation practices, employing ‘old-boys’ as teachers and coaches, collecting funds and donations from previous students, may all contribute to their maintenance of normative, ‘traditional’, masculinities. From the events that unfolded this year, it would be safe to assume that silence is one such practice for maintaining normative masculinities at the school – a practice that it would also be safe to assume is used, knowingly or unknowingly, across schools in the country.

Should the abused boys have been coaxed into keeping themselves silent about their abuse, it would also be safe to assume that they complied: institutional pressure from the school, the power that abusers have over their victims and the cultures of masculinity that dominate South African society may all contribute to the acceptance that ‘silence equals manliness’, or that speaking about one’s vulnerability is not manly enough. In a study by Knight and others (2012, 1246) on ‘guy talk’ and ‘manning up’ in relation to the men’s sexual health, the authors note how talk (and other practices) can be used by young men to “(i) exert power over others with disregard for potential repercussions and (ii) deploy power to affirm and reify their own hyper-masculine identities, while using their personal (masculine) power to help others (who are subordinate in the social ordering of men)”. In a culture of ‘manning up’, victims of abuse might very well understand their silence as a method for reiterating and maintaining their masculine identities alongside the understanding that victimhood is not a masculine trait – despite the potentially dire psychological effects that being a victim of abuse could result in.

Similarly, institutional silence enables the perspective that silence in the maintenance of normative masculinities is warranted: Is there visibility of the issue of male abuse on campus and in the curriculum? Do teachers and other school leaders address social issues pertinent to a South African context, gender and sexual identity and citizenship in critical and transformative ways? Ultimately, the question is whether these issues are visible or kept silent in the realm of an all-boys’ school, and why.

I do not mean to suggest that Parktown boys does not do anything for their student population, or that they have not attended to their students in the correct way. However, the occurrence of violence in schools across South Africa, where Parktown boys is but one example, indicates the need to ask questions (and then address those questions) in the attempt to break the overwhelming silences that govern controversial issues and how they manifest themselves in schools, classrooms and the lives of teachers and students. The stigma of being or having been abused and being male, and the risks of losing one’s identity because of this stigma, influences whether or not individuals feel they can speak about their experiences. As Vasu Reddy suggests in his article on masculinities, making nonconforming identities visible by breaking silences enables relations of power “renegotiated in a context in which there is increased visibility; in media, in the workplace, in education, and especially in policy formation” (p. 65).

Author: Dr Navan Govender for SAMSOSA (South African Male Surviors of Sexual Abuse)
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