Eviatar Zerubavel on Silence and Denial
Words are powerful, words change lives. Spoken or unspoken they shape and focus perceptions, permit or deny action. Even the absence of talk isn’t devoid of words. In our least articulate moments silence speaks to us, urging thought in a specific direction, demanding that we describe life in certain ways when the conversation starts again. Eviatar Zerubavel knows this, and pries open silence to reveal the babble of repression in things best left unsaid.
Zerubavel’s Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life is a brief but utterly perceptive guide to the undiscussable. In only eighty seven pages of argument it outlines the social collusion that culminates in conspiracies of silence, tracking through examples ranging from survivor silence about the holocaust to the unwillingness of families harbouring alcoholics to speak their self-imposed sentence.
Central to Zerubavel’s thesis is the proverbial elephant in the room, that overwhelming presence of denial we confirm with an absence of speech. The point is not that no-one knows about an untoward event or a pervasive social ill. Rather, they fail to acknowledge the obvious, acting as though it doesn’t exist, and through their actions might yet not exist. By failing to speak we skirt the awkward truths grown abundantly throughout life, hoping irrationally that the family, the group or the society will benefit from our constant evasion.
And this is not a haphazard process. Zerubavel shows that we’re “socialized to focus only on certain parts or aspects of situations while systematically ignoring others”. We don’t ignore by chance or inclination, but through social pressures that turn us one way and then another, unspoken censures that ensure achievement, satisfaction and happiness are not forthcoming for those who greet any situation with a cry of ‘this is wrong! Things must change!’
So it should be obvious that conspiracies of silence are counterproductive – they cripple lives, and through that harsh, grinding process they retard society. Look around you and ask, what is obvious but unspoken? What proverbial elephant passes by, too close for comfort but not close enough for shouts of alarm? And, more to the point, who actively denies the elephant when it’s exposed?
In Hong Kong that elephant is a deep and abiding racism of which few are willing to speak but many are ready to deny; its unspoken and virtually unspeakable presence haunts the lives of ‘foreign’ domestic helpers here to the extent that they, too, fail to announce what it is, and what it does to them. Like the rape victim who can’t utter her shame, a helper recruited through a racist migration scheme then treated like a commodity is a silent testimony to systematic exclusion, always living on the edges of someone else’s life, tugging at the fragile boundaries of society at large.
But as Zerubavel notes, it takes only one person with sufficient power, with enough standing in society, to speak the greater shame before others can question their own silence, and what it does to them. He often uses the phrase ‘needless to say’ when introducing an obvious repercussion, which can be an irritation in much academic writing. Why write what everyone knows, why presume that readers are ignorant? Yet in Zerubavel’s hands the phrase is an emphatic restatement of what he has already explained. Those things needless to say must always be said, and then said again.
Speak, Hong Kong, speak.