30. Being Speechless

On Having Something to Say but Not Having a Voice

Speech is an important part of being both human and social beings. It's central to our lives in ways we often don't realize. Much of my professional work in philosophy focuses on language; indeed, it's called the philosophy of language. Typically, I work on what we say to each other in speech acts called assertions (when we claim that something is true, give directions, and so on), and I work on how they can go wrong. For example, must we know what we say? Some of my current work, though, focuses on how gender, race, and class impact what we say to each other and in what contexts different speech acts are permitted.

metamorphosis_unsilence.pngGender and language is a fairly well explored topic, particularly in linguistics. In philosophy, it's often been studied by feminist philosophers (people who identify as specializing in the field of feminist philosophy). Less typically, it's sometimes studied by more "mainstream" philosophers of language. Women's utterances are often mistaken for being a speech act other than the one intended (or, indeed, performed) by the woman speaker; a command by a woman superior may be incorrectly interpreted as a request by a male inferior, for example. Rebecca Kukla calls this discursive injustice.

This post isn't really about that, though. It's about being silenced. Now, plenty of people (women, people of colour, disabled people, and others with diminished political and socioeconomic power) have experienced being actively silenced. There are many methods for accomplishing this. For example, people can be threatened to stay silent, or threats can be carried through: slut-shaming, for example. Or people can be physically excluded from places of speech: withholding voting rights for women was one form, having all-male sports clubs where important company business is discussed is another. But this post is about implicit silencing: where vulnerable people, because of their vulnerability and diminished socioeconomic and political power, are deterred from speech for their own safety (whether political, social, economic, psychological, or physical).

I've been implicitly silenced a few times since my transition, particularly about issues relating to what this blog is about: my thoughts on philosophy, feminism, and being a trans woman (especially in academe). I've had at least three posts buried because of this. One was a combination of implicit and explicit silencing: it would have caused (and indeed, somewhat *did* cause) considerable distress and hurt feelings for the subjects of the post. The other two are purely implicit: no one told me not to post them; I had to come to that decision on my own, and always unhappily.

It's unbelievably frustrating. I have things to say, and I'm not permitted a voice, even when I post under a pseudonym (because enough of my colleagues know that this blog is mine). So if things happen with them that I feel a need to divulge, I know that even if I don't refer to them by name, or even with any identifying information, they may come across the post and feel umbrage. And some of the events I need to speak about happened in front of other people, who may read the post, and so the subject may feel "thrown under the bus" unjustly.

And my silence comes from being a contract employee: I don't yet have a tenure track position (let alone the safety of tenure). These people, being my colleagues, carry more power over me than I could possibly carry over them. And being seen as uncollegial is a career killer in academe (and rightly so). I'm not uncollegial, though. However, I think that one can still respectfully point to ways in which colleagues utterly screw up regarding gender and trans* issues without thereby being uncollegial. But what I think doesn't matter: it's what other people think. And that's because I lack the institutional power to have a voice about these issues.

So for now, I'll stay silent. It's just one more subtle way that privilege remains intact, and inequality stays with it: the disadvantaged can't speak, and no one's going to speak for them. …fuck.

Yours truly,
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