When ‘why?’ isn’t enough

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When a recent discussion between Rebecca Solnit and Bonnie Greer turned to the myriad accusations made against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and the prevalence of sexual violence harassment in not only the film industry but all spheres, Greer asked a question that seemed to open up a wide chasm: “Why, when we knew about it, did’t we say anything?”

Reading Solnit’s book, The Mother of All Questions I see that a whole essay is given over to mapping the territory of women’s silencing, which maybe explained why the gap that opened up with Greer’s question wasn’t filled by words from her.
As Solnit eloquently and painfully describes in the essay, A Short History of Silence, women’s starting position is that of silence, and that largely because they go unheard within the structures of a society that represent and serve the male interests.

The ‘Why?’ like the ‘How?’ of the silencing of women is long and complex. But you just had to look at the majority female audience who went to see Solnit at the Royal Festival Hall, to see that men generally get to choose if they listen to women, or participate in discussions about them. Women are used to seeing films, reading books, listening to debates that involve men, sometimes exclusively. But move the gender balance towards women and it becomes ‘niche’, something which, on the whole, men aren’t expected to engage with.

Solnit in her essay says that alongside the ‘flight or flight’ mechanism there is also ‘tend-and-befriend’ which, according to a 2000 UCLA study by several psychologists, involves gathering “for solidarity, support and advice”.

Tending involves nurturant activities designed to protect the self and offspring that promote safety and reduce distress, befriending is the creation and maintenance of social networks that may aid in this process.

Talking to a friend who herself decided to leave her job because of her harassing boss’s behaviour, I realised that offering support, saying comforting words wasn’t enough. There were probably instances when women did speak about their experiences – Weinstein’s behaviour seems to have been an open secret in Hollywood. It struck me that myself and another friend were being supportive and sympathetic, but really there was another question being asked of us: “What are we going to do?’ Without answering that, it struck me, I would be engaging in just the same behaviour that Greer decried in herself. But attempting to answer the question of ‘what’ takes us onto the ground that speaking out requires not only that people listen, but that it effects change.

If all I do is comfort my friend – a younger woman – am I implying that there is a kind of inevitability about what happened? Should I expect her, ultimately, to face the consequences of her decisions about speaking out alone? Why should her reputation, her name be put on the line, why should she face potential shame and humiliation?

The question of why women are silent, as Solnit shows, is one that is answered by looking at the structures that exclude and silence women and the emotional terrain that supports them. As Greer’s question suggested, uncomfortably perhaps, women may need to look to themselves to understand how silencing operates within them. But the danger is that such questions lead to the problematising of women’s behaviour, without examining what’s going on with those who are so intent on silencing. Women may need to work to recover their capacity to speak, but we also need to shift the ground and look at why so few women are listened to. That brings into focus the power structures and the ways that men are ‘trained’ as Solnit describes it, to perpetuate patriarchal values through renunciation, suppression and control both within themselves and of women. So along with asking why women are silent, we need to ask questions of those who are not listening, and begin looking at what needs to be done to bring about change.