Monday, January 30, 2012


Though suppressing voices from the past may be what academics do best, there are exceptions. The problem is that people's sensitivities to this can be selective. It's okay to silence some voices but not others. You might be terribly upset when historical voices of your culture are repressed, but doing it to another culture can be perfectly acceptable. I wish we could all get together on this and agree that it is wrong wherever and whenever it occurs. Here are seven pertinent quotes on the matter (I'm stopping at seven because it was Mickey Mantle's number) and you will notice that all but the first one are decidedly from outside academia.

This is from Barbara Taylor's study of 19th century British feminism, Eve and the New Jerusalem, p. 153: "Where injunctions against speech have been most harsh, they have almost deprived the silenced of a language in which to voice their opposition." You will notice that she says 'almost'. This comes in a section detailing the life of Emma Martin, one of the most fascinating people I have ever come across. Until I read this quote, I had not considered that depriving people of a language to tell their story in, was one very effective way of silencing them. It also drives the silenced to become more hysterical which ensures that no one will listen.

Samuel Adams knew something about that. His advice was to shout it out anyway. Writing in 1768, a few years before the American revolution, he said, "I know very well that to murmur, or even to whisper a complaint, some men call a riotous spirit. But they are in the right of it to complain, and complain ALOUD." Some would advise that if you want a sympathetic audience, you should tone it down. (I believe there is an Emily Dickinson poem to the effect that one should let out the truth only a little piece at a time.) But Adams knew that would not necessarily help. Just tell it loud and clear, because they will kick your ass around the block, even if you whisper it. Might as well let it rip.

Then there is Ursula Hegi whose parents and other adults tried to silence her questions about what happened in Germany during World War II. They just kept repeating "We suffered, too" as if her questions might go away. In Tearing the Silence, she says that "to preserve the integrity of my vision [of truth seeking], I have to risk not belonging to any community" (41). Being on the outside will mean less chance of having an audience and could also mean losing one's nerve and returning to silence, but that's a chance you have to take. It is striking that speaking for the silenced often means losing your community and being alone in the world.

Robert Chambers was writing about evolution, or development as it was then called, in the first half of the 19th century. He published a controversial book in 1844, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, when there was severe opposition to such ideas. He received more hostile criticism than Charles Darwin ever did. And he stood up to it, putting out edition after edition of this book. In 1845, he also published Explanations: A Sequel, as a further response to his critics, and a revised edition in 1846, in which he wrote, "It is to the chilling repression of all saliency in investigation, which characterizes the scientific men of our country and age, that I object ..." He accused them (and rightly so) of being timid and using their timidity to silence rational debate. After fifteen years of his hammering away at critics, he succeeded in changing the atmosphere a bit, without which Darwin's book would never have received a fair hearing.

And then there is the lovely Frank McCourt. In Angela's Ashes, after wearing himself out dragging his younger brothers all around Limerick, trying to get some marmalade for his bed-ridden mother and bread for his brothers, he is confronted by the adult relatives in his family. He's just a kid and he knows what he is up against. "There's no use telling them about the marmalade for they'll only scream again. There's no use telling them about the nastiness of rich people and their maids" (240). Sometimes you just have to shut up. Maybe you'll live to tell the story one day. Maybe not.

You remember the TV series, Homicide? It took place in Baltimore. There was a detective named Frank Pembleton, I believe, played by Andre Braugher. He was Catholic and that was important to him in his work as a homicide detective. On one episode, he explained to someone that what he liked or valued about his job is that he speaks for the dead. They cannot speak for themselves. Someone has to represent them, especially if there has been an injustice. Historians are supposed to speak for the dead. Historical Jesus scholars are supposed to, but rarely do. I wish they would take their job as seriously as Frank Pembleton, instead of using it as an excuse to carry out ideological battles. Academic historians often act more like the family members of murdered victims than they do like the detectives who are entrusted to solve the case.

Finally, number 7, is a young woman I recently saw on TV, one of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. She said, "If our voices don't matter because we're not wealthy, that is really uncomfortbale and it's dangerous." It's always dangerous to silence people -- that is, if you are seeking some semblance of truth, but if you are in lust with power, then silence is the way to go.

If anyone is wondering what I meant by the title of this post, that first part comes from a song by Laura Marling, "Sophia". Just google her name and Sophia or search for them on You Tube and you can find the video of that song. I like that expression, where I'm going is no concern of yours. It seems very appropriate for describing the attempt to unsilence voices in history, especially the Jewish voices of the 1st century. It's a nice way of saying, I'm pissed off.

Leon Zitzer

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?