From Todd Schoepflin’s blog on Everyday Sociology March 4, 2011, reviewing Eviatar Zerubavel’s, The Elephant in the Room, Silence and Denial in Everyday Life:
Silence and Denial in Everyday Life is the subtitle of a powerfully insightful book, The Elephant in the Room by sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel. I came across this gem a few years ago and it has since become one of my favorite books.
Surely you’ve heard the phrase “elephant in the room,” which refers to something obvious that is being ignored. It can be a problem or controversial issue that is overlooked for a variety of reasons, including embarrassment, shame, fear, or because the subject is taboo. As Zerubavel explains, silence is a practical way of avoiding painful or controversial issues, and so we might “look the other way” instead of confronting a problem or discussing a delicate matter.
But why else do people remain silent in the face of controversial issues? According to Zerubavel, one answer is norms about remaining silent or ignoring information. For example, think about sayings in our culture about keeping quiet like “Bite your tongue,” “Button your lip,” and “Silence is golden.”
Other sayings that tell us we shouldn’t seek out information: “Ignorance is bliss,” “What you don’t know won’t hurt you,” “Look the other way,” “Turn a blind eye.” There are also common expressions to discourage us from getting involved in matters that supposedly don’t involve us, like “Don’t rock the boat” and “Mind your own business.”
In a very powerful point, Zerubavel reminds us that silence, in some cases, is consent. If we don’t say anything, we essentially condone improper behavior and the person responsible for it might view his or her actions as acceptable. He gives the example of a woman who pretends not to notice that her husband is molesting their daughter. As he says, her silence enables the abuse because it conveys approval. Zerubavel uses the phrase “conspiracy of silence” to describe this type of situation.
Silence prevents us from confronting (and consequently solving) problems and controversial issues. Breaking a conspiracy of silence can start with an acknowledgment that an issue (an “elephant”) is present and will not go away by itself. This is why, as the author explains, breaking silence can be a moral act.
In the beginning of the book, he provides a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” A quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. is appropriate because he exemplifies the importance of not keeping quiet in the face of inequality and injustice. Indeed, civil rights leaders usually don’t look the other way and they actually do rock the boat.
And society is better off for many a leader having challenged the status quo. We can’t forget the fact that disrupting the existing order is a key ingredient in facilitating social change. The quote is so powerful because it implies that it’s not enough to not be a bad person. The so-called “good people” who don’t say or do anything about cruel behavior or longstanding social problems can be thought of as tacitly condoning the misdeeds of others and accepting the consequences of unsolved problems. (By Todd Schoepflin)
How does one match up this invigorating and historically challenging ethic with the ethic of “compliance” with authority, especially in top-down, hierarchical organizations like the military, the quasi-military, and the plethora or organizations that imitate and emulate both the structure and the order of the military, especially the church.
This question lies at the heart of the dilemma many face when they enter an ecclesial organization, first as a student, then an intern and then deacon and priest. Authority of what has been called the magisterium (the church hierarchy, including the bishop(s), archbishop(s), primates and even the papacy. The question can be framed also in a manner that challenges the degree of compliance, and even collusion (whether conscious or not) between the ecclesial body and the culture in which it attempts to function. And Being ‘nice’ is one of the cardinal guides for how the family and education systems inculcate children into their world. Polite, kind, generous, funny, playful, and smart are guideposts for children in all western cultures, while their more specific application may differ marginally depending on the traditions of the community. Argumentative, challenging, impatient, rude, mouthy, and even bitter are words that tend to, if not guarantee a young person’s alienation, isolation, and bullying and separation. In fact, too many young boys who were giving evidence of any of those traits in schools were prescribed Ritalin as the system’s way of ‘calming’ (read controlling) those boys.
Even at a base level, a culture in the classroom and the school itself, created by and for females, stressing control, patience, physical stillness, reading, writing and answering questions respectfully is both physically and emotionally challenging for many young boys. Trouble is a culture of professional calm defined what passed as professional competence. And anything (act or child) that did not easily and readily fit into that pattern was “treated” as ‘abnormal’…when the biology and the psychology of many of those young boys who were considered “difficult” were both quite normal, for their gender and age. Parents, too, have difficulty if and when their children question how the parenting process is being conducted. There is a dramatic shift between the strategies and tactics parents use with the baby, and the pre-schooler, and the methods considered appropriate for those turbulent hormone-overflowing adolescents.
The question, however, of the issues (conflicts, disagreements, tensions) between parents, can easily, quickly and quietly slip into a pattern of avoidance or even denial, especially if one or other of those parents consider the ‘pay-back’ from detailing a complaint is potentially too risky for them to raise it. Getting along, after all, was one of the prime ‘beacons’ of living in a neighbourhood, of passing in school, of being selected for the minor hockey or soccer team, and even of benefiting from the “praise” and acceptance of those same parents. And then, the pattern of one’s own parents is deeply imprinted on the consciousness (and even the unconscious) of each of us, without our even being aware of that process. So, for boys, if our father was calm and non-argumentative, (and we did not know either the evidence or the name passive-aggressive) we invariably considered such behaviour both acceptable and even honourable in our own marriages. So, we too became, unconsciously often, passive aggressive, if we encountered a situation with which we did not concur. If our mothers were contentious, on the other hand, we were more likely to exhibit our father’s pattern, if we encountered similar contentiousness from our spouse. The original family patterns find their way into the next generation’s families, and often need adjustment, or even overhaul.
Family relations are obviously framed differently than differences of opinion about matters that do not directly impact a relationship, in terms of required behaviour. Confronting a class-mate’s opinion about a historic event, for example, will inevitably ‘distinguish’ the confronter as ‘rough-edged’ by his teachers and could even isolate that person from his peers, except for those who find such challenges exciting, motivating and opening the door to participation. For contemporary adolescents, the opportunity to fire off scurrilous innuendo in secret about the character of others through social media, is counter-intuitive to the whole process of open, honest, respectful and potentially resolving dialogue. The unfettered process affords a kind of impunity that is clearly not warranted, needs change even to the point of elimination. And yet, by whom or by which legislative body, and with or without the compliance of the big tech behemoths?
The legal profession has designed, inculcated and practiced a protocol, for use in professional court proceedings, that permit and enable and encourage and rely on the objective presentation of opposing evidence and opinion between litigants in the case(s). Judges are steeped in this process, and both monitor and shape its unfolding to their taste and reputation. However, such formality, what would readily be deemed ‘rigid’ and ‘strict’ and ‘cold’ and rehearsed, and thereby ultimately controlled would find a rare family kitchen or dining room table conversation. Historically, too, the subject of rhetoric, integral to legal and political discourse (at least in history) helped to shape the exchange of differing views, while preserving the dignity, the honour and the integrity of the opposing side.
These elevated norms, however, are not easily adopted, nor readily appropriate for water-cooler conversation. And, rather than expressing oneself, for example, over the back fence with neighbours, about the military coup in Myanmar, for example, most neighbours will engage in topics like the temperature, the snow storm, and, occasionally last nights Maple Leaf hockey game. Those are safe topics that are almost guaranteed not to offend. Avoiding alienation, isolation, and the gossip that inevitably rises from encounters that are ‘too much’ for normality (however the other defines it) are stronger than a motive of engagement in the exchange of views, even if they might be different. And that language of practical sense (Frye) pertains and prevails in our consumer lives, our lives as patients in our doctors’ offices, at the mechanic shop when our car needs work, and at the town hall when we pay our taxes. Nothing contentious is raised, unless and until the issue is considered so significant that it cannot be avoided.
Bring that gestalt into the sanctuary, for example, not specifically to the pulpit where a level of decorum and formality is both expected and, for the most part, practiced but into the pews. If there were an instrument analogous to a Geiger-counter, that could detect, and then record, and then play back the incidence of gossip among those seated weekly in church pews (regardless of denomination), the inventor of such an instrument would either be rich or bankrupt…depending on whether those engaged in the centuries-long invective could retain their anonymity or not. There is a ubiquitous and inexhaustible reservoir of human energy that seems to find a welcome if not magnetic receptor/expressor in people whose lives are somehow dependent on their spiritual experience on Sunday morning. That energy is seeded and impelled by an over-weening need (?), desire (?), compulsion (?) to tattle, and to criticize, and to shame others, the details of whose lives too often become ‘public’ at least to those compulsively engaged in mining such details.
This deeply culturally embedded dynamic, naturally attracts some, while it also repels others. And the latter group tend to become “mute” in and when such gossip is being bandied about. This pattern applies primarily to the minutiae of individual lives, and while it has the potential of empathy and compassion when legitimate illness or even death impacts a church family, it also has the equally potent and negative impact on clergy, and on the lives of those considered “heathen” or ‘sinful’ or ‘evil’ and these categories are themselves determined individually, often reliant on the stereotypes of the social culture. Sexuality, alcohol dependence, financial strife, job loss, divorce, and for decades, gayness were typically targeted issues, and the faces and persons of deviance served as the diet for an over-needy appetite for derision.
And then, on the subject of how a town is dealing with a rise in adolescent suicide, drug dependence, school-drop-outs, racism sexism, ageism, and all of the many faces of both superiority and inferiority, (colonialism and the abuse of power), or how the province or state is policing minorities, or how the nation is tending toward fascism, oligarchy, nihilism, the church community is for the most part, silent. The power of its voice, it seems, has been gagged by the willful negligence of both its leaders and its parishioners. The honour, respectability, dignity and even truth that has the potential to impact the lives of both parishioners (through detailed, and open conflict resolution) both between hierarchy and clergy, and between and among parishioners themselves, is too often left to the private one-on-one sessions, in which the power of one over the other reigns, without appeal, or even re-consideration.
The culture, including the political landscape, is thereby robbed of the very moderate and needed voices of those who seek reconciliation, resolution and the amelioration of conflict, (except for the fanatically and compulsively motivated anti-abortion activists, and more recently the equally rabid gun-rights activists). The competing polarities of “political correctness” and excessive and potentially anarchic excesses are likely to continue to play themselves out, so long as the moderate, intelligent, modest, and penetratingly relevant voices of those who pursue their own spiritual pilgrimage (in all faith communities) without engaging in the life of the body politic.
The binary, either or, just like the Manichean black/white, is not a pattern of language that can or will lead a culture to the more nebulous, and more nuanced and more insightful fine print of how we might come together for the greater consideration of the public good. And, the millions of missing voices, all of them balanced, insightful, sensitive and mature, will find the public arena distasteful so long as the extremes are screaming or mute.