As 2014 comes quickly to an end, it’s a natural time to look back and reflect on what the year has brought. And this year – especially very recently – has produced National news that forces us to confront how far we still need to go to achieve equality of race, gender and religion. I often think that as women we act as peacekeepers – whether that is in our nature or something that we have internalized through our culture – too unsure or afraid to use our voices in the face of some form of adversary. And I mean that quite literally. How many women have stayed silent while experiencing sexual harassment? Or watched while we witnessed someone harassed for their sexual orientation or skin colour? So, our question for this month asks what we can do to change that. Please, weigh in in the comment section, and take a look at this great story on LinkedIn about a woman’s response to a man harassing her at the pharmacy counter.
As women, how could we use our voices to advocate for what we believe in?
It’s struck me as an interesting switcheroo lately how the two figures at the centre of the most talked about sexual harassment and rape scandals of the past few weeks, Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby, once very vocal and empowered voices, are now silent. But silent by choice, of course, and not because they lack voice and agency.
Both men have been accused of seriously vile acts. Ghomeshi has recently been charged with sexual assault, amongst other things, and he awaits further criminal proceedings. Cosby has become a persona non grata after several women alleged he was a predatory serial rapist. He has not been charged with any offenses.
One of the oft heard undercurrents with both stories is “why didn’t these women say something when the alleged events happened?” It’s the kind of question that when asked or implied, makes me grit my teeth. And it relates very much to the question of how and whether we use our voices, because first and foremost, in order to voice something, we have to feel we have the ability to speak, and that our voices will be heard. I don’t want to speak for the many women who are now coming out with their stories of assault at the hands of these men. But I will say choosing not to speak does not mean you have nothing to say—or, perhaps more appropriately in these cases, that nothing happened.
Saying Something vs. Saying Anything
I read an Internet meme recently that said “It costs nothing to speak out, but remaining silent could cost everything.” Like many of the anonymous (and sometimes attributed or misattributed) quotes that stand in for meaningful dialogue on some social media sites, this one was ambiguous. I saw it and thought, “well, that depends…” It depends on who is doing the speaking, what they mean to say, and how and where they say it. Clearly, privilege and power allows some to speak louder and with more weight, than others. And it’s also not true that speaking out costs nothing. For women speaking out about their own harassment and abuse, the cost is great. They risk ridicule, disbelief, and punishment. It requires a lot of courage to “use your voice” and I don’t blame people for weighing the costs and deciding not to.
So then, where do we go from there? How do we use our voices to advocate for what we believe in? If these recent cases have done anything, they have given us more opportunity to collectively talk about the things that silence all of us or some of us, and to examine how we can remove the fear and shame from using our voices. Social media has been one very hot venue for this. Even as the Ghomeshi story was hitting the news, Twitter was erupting with support for the women who were revealing their stories. This kind of viral advocacy shouldn’t be dismissed.
New hashtags are invented everyday to put voice to our stories and issues. Okay, so discussion on Twitter (and blogs like this one) may not entirely change face-to-face interaction, but they can give us another way to speak and be heard—particularly for those who otherwise lack a forum. The trick will be to turn the ideas being discussed in social media, into concrete societal change by altering the structures that make it possible for those who have power (or benefit more from their privilege) to silence those who don’t.
A voice is a precious thing to those without one. The famous line “No one puts Baby in the corner” expressed more than her position in the room. I’m no Swayze, but when an opportunity arises to Advocate for those who are oppressed, ignored, or incapable of utilizing their voice, my insides boil without a lid to cage me. Meet me in real life and you would never classify me as brave. Stick me in a situation where I know my voice can be used to help those in need and I morph into ‘Supergirl Whose Voice Cannot Be Ignored’ no matter the brawn I face.
Well…there’s no cape, or fancy emblem, and technically people still shut me out BUT I speak and that right there is the key.
There’s no shortage of those who need others to speak for them for one reason or another, so I’m sure to build my self-awareness to better articulate my response when the time comes. Having an opinion is half the puzzle, learning to utilize it in a respectful manner is another. You can’t slap every person you disagree with, and verbal communication filled with anger, inappropriate expletives, and nonsense only weakens your cause.
And that’s coming from a potty mouth.
In my work at the YWCA as a Women’s Advocate, I make calls and sit in meetings for/with some others who only listen to those with a title. I also encourage the women to learn to speak for themselves. At some point in their life they were stuck in a corner, one surrounded by an invisible box designed to cripple their confidence or force the belief that their opinion carries little to no worth.
Every person’s opinion matters. Even if it’s off-the-wall or created to anger others, it still matters. We as people have the choice to voice a rebuttal if we choose and sometimes learning when that battle is only a minefield meant to antagonize is difficult, so I weigh my options. If I stay quiet and this in anyway perpetuates harm to others, I speak up and step in regardless of the price. If speaking up does nothing but make me heard in a room of closed ears, I laugh and walk away.
The line can be difficult to navigate.
Another form of speaking out is at our fingertips. Literally. As in our keyboards. I blog, I respond to comments on social media (again, if worth the carpal tunnel aches), I sign petitions, write to those regarding my opinion on something without expectation of a response, but only to educate others that it exists.
Sitting back and letting others speak for you leads to miscommunication and loses its heart. If I can properly interpret others needs and relay them appropriately, it has been a good day. I’ll Swayze someone if need be, but the best gift you can give is the gift of voice. To hear a once timid person speak with empowered confidence for their needs or wants is not something I take for granted.