“A voice is a human gift; it should be cherished and used, to utter fully human speech as possible. Powerlessness and silence go together.” – Margaret Atwood.
Margaret Atwood, the author of the Handmaid’s Tale – a story of a not too distant dystopia where men exert complete control over women’s reproductive cycles – knew full well silence’s considerable rhetorical power as an expression of helplessness.
So do people on all fronts in 2012’s version of gender politics, the War on Women. Many have used silence as a rhetorical tool to make a range of points addressing the government’s proprietary, invasive approach to the American female body. And with revelations in recent weeks, we have seemingly entered a brave new world. New statistics show an egregious gender gap in the 2012 election coverage:
The media simply aren’t asking women what they think, not in the same numbers they ask men, and not even on the issues that affect women the most. Meanwhile, anyone engaging in a little terrestrial radio dial-hopping on February 29th or March 1st could hear Rush Limbaugh offer his less-than-charitable estimation of Sandra Fluke (and apropos of this discussion, we would be remiss if we did not point out that Fluke was almost excluded entirely from the Congressional hearings that sparked Limbaugh’s rant; it was only after considerable wrangling that Democrats were able to win her a seat at the table. She was the only woman there). But the graphic is also compelling to us for both its use of the word “silenced” to describe the situation, and the way in which it displays the word; given the statistics, arguing that women have no voice at all – or have been “silenced” – in gender issues is apparently only a little hyperbolic. There is no better way to silence a sector of society than to ignore it. Moreover, with the fading from view of the word “silenced” as we take a few seconds for our eyes to scan the graphic from left to right, the suggestion becomes clear: with each passing second, women’s views on women’s issues fade further from visibility, tangibility, and legibility. Silence is the end game.
Additionally, with mid-June’s removal of speech privileges from – that is to say, the effective silencing of – Michigan legislator Lisa Brown for daring to utter the medical name for the female anatomy while discussing an abortion bill on the floor of the state’s House of Representatives, we have reached a new low in speech-freedom’s ugly underbelly…
…the gender biased double standard.
The image’s lighthearted use of a “connect the dots” motif makes the absurdity of the situation clear: a child can understand the egregious bias in the move to censor Brown.
Finally, at least, and at last, the appearance in the July / August 2012 Atlantic Monthly of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s fascinating meditation “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” has broken the silence on the many ways in which societal standards preclude women from having top-flight careers while being good mothers.
All of this recent ado about silence regarding women and their socio-political conditions warrants a closer look. I offer two interpolated images as a case study on uses of silence as a rhetorical tool in the discourse on our gender-based caste system.
Consider first the use of silence by those espousing a Pro-Life point of view. Silence has long been at the conceptual core of their oft-used image, wherein women (and also men in impressive numbers) put pieces of duct tape bearing the word “Life” over their mouths. The duct tape imagery has always been a centerpiece of the annual “Pro-Life Day of Silent Solidarity” protests, founded by pro-life activist Bryan Kemper (again, a male voice, ladies), dating back to 2004. As University of Mary Hardin-Baylor silent student protester Amanda Willey explained during the 2006 Silent Solidarity protests, the red duct tape over the mouth bearing the word “Life” signifies “a time for students to give up their voice (sic.) for all of the unborn children…who will never get to voice their opinion because the decision was made for them.” In other words, to anti-abortionists, the duct tape over the mouth posits silence, and thus powerlessness, in the unborn.
Seemingly lost on those who conceived this particular brand of imagery, and those who have perpetuated it, is its inadvertent refraction of an entirely negative connotation, one that makes the imagery all-too-easy to criticize: conservative Pro-Lifers betray their true ideology, Pro-Choice critics can say, because this imagery, which they find so effective, needs elaboration. It is an exclusive visual code. Without explanation, it appears confusing at best. To the uninitiated, the image could easily suggest that anti-abortionists would like to use the key word embodying their stance on the question of abortion, “Life,” to render women literally unable to speak their minds.
Now consider the riveting episode that took place in Virginia in February of this year. Upset residents (and we should again add that they were women and men, the latter in impressively strong numbers) used silence to demonstrate what they saw as the powerlessness of women in the face of a proposed bill on the floor of the Virginia State legislature that would require ultrasounds for women who have chosen to have abortions. Protestors lined the entry path to the Virginia state house as legislators showed up for work. Not shouting slogans, or singing protest songs, carrying very few signs, not even praying audibly, they simply stood silently outside the legislative building while representatives arrived for work. In other words, on the one hand, they demonstrated their presence with their impressive numbers – a political factor that we often equate with power. But on the other hand, by opting to leave their vocal chords in the resting position, they quite literally embodied their own powerlessness. On their Facebook page, they explained their stance as follows: “We think silence in the face of this struggle and their unconstitutional rules presents the strongest response to their assault on women.” Ignoring the views of a considerable faction of voters, on any issue, is tantamount to silencing them.
Thus, according to the terms set out by Virginia protesters, women subject to restrictive, invasive legislation over their bodies are powerless on a number of levels; they felt they had no say over the crafting of the legislation and no access to details concerning debates over it, let alone the ability to vote on it in a democratic fashion. And this is to say nothing of the effects of the legislation they protested, which, with the passage of the bill in early may, have disempowered them further.
The call and response between these two very public uses of silence for opposite rhetorical ends would be compelling enough if this alone was all we had to say about it.
But thinking even just a little bit past the surface of the symbolism in these events reveals the deeper poetics in the exchange; on the one hand, according to thousands of Pro-Life protesters, silence is the most accurate, most effective descriptor for those souls who do not receive the chance to live, which conception granted them; at least, anti-abortionists would argue, those who favor choice are alive and able to engage the world of discourse. In the Pro-Life view, any lack of voice that Pro-Choice proponents might have is nominal in comparison with the powerlessness of the unborn.
By the same token, however, Pro-Choice ideologists would contend, to posit powerlessness in the unborn is not untrue, but it is disingenuous towards open discourse, willfully ignorant of those who attempt to engage dialogue on difficult truths such as unwanted pregnancies, conception resulting from rape, and the bleak prospects of a fatherless child, born into poverty of a drug-addicted mother.
The Virgina protest was thus tantamount to reclaiming silence from the Pro-Life faction, those who claim silence for the unborn while suppressing into silence open discussions on the complexities of abortion.
Such a reclamation, arguing that the conservative side extols the censorship of open discussions on women’s rights to their own bodies, is precisely what one young woman had in mind in her response to last week’s “Vagina-gate” episode in Michigan:
As a full conceptual inversion of the anti-abortionist’s emblematic duct tape imagery, the image is succinct in exposing the ambiguity in its Pro-Life referent. According to the terms of this image, the “it” that women must “keep in,” is, of course, the word “vagina,” despite its status as the name for their own anatomy, as if nature itself is not only deniable, but dirty, corrupt. Like the ultrasound bill that was eventually passed in Virginia (and I have not been alone in finding it ironic that conservatives would favor such a bill, given that it makes government bigger, not smaller), like the entire anti-abortion ideology, disqualifying women from being allowed to voice the name for their own anatomy in a debate over policies that regard it is commensurate with taking women’s bodies away from them.
So what does this recent outbreak of episodes involving the silencing of the disempowered, the censoring of full discourse based on arbitrary terms, really mean? Regardless of who is right, who is wrong, and who is righteous, the use of silence in the 2012 manifestation of gender politics known as the War on Women signals dire conditions.
The handling of the concept of silence by concerned parties on all sides in the War on Women exposes the myriad questions at its core. For example, we have long known that not all women are liberal feminists; many women are conservative. But do we know how women over the political spectrum feel when it comes to the question of giving women a voice in American political discourse? How do women across the range of political ideologies define what it means to have a voice? Have conservative women ever openly argued against the censorship of left leaning feminist voices? More pointedly, can we identify conservative women who have argued for a greater range of venues for all women’s voices by mere virtue of gender? And by the same token, can we find examples of women to the left who are truly open to conservative points of view from women, because they come from women? What is the moderate woman’s view?
Whether we can supply clear, concrete answers to the questions above, let alone debatable ones, is not the point. Rather, the questions themselves are; if we have to ask them at all, then there is a black hole at the center of mainstream American gender discourse. They are questions we could answer easily if they regarded how men over the entire political spectrum view having a voice in the media.
And these conditions have already manifested themselves in incipient ways that displace real discourse, and do not, upon first read, appear to have anything to do with the War on Women. Upon further examination, though, they really do. For example, when presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney argues, as he frequently has, that we need to “stick to the economy” in discussions of what matters most for the upcoming election, he is doing more than trying to steer us towards his own strengths and his opponent’s weaknesses; he is also doing more than simply betraying his tin ear for the impact of gender and other social issues on America’s economic well-being; he is widening the discursive gaps in the War on Women. The fact that Romney considers the idea of sticking to the economy to be a legitimate campaign strategy coupled with the media’s tendency to focus mostly on his economic policies in coverage of him, indicates just how pervasive the silence from women really is.
And this is the double-blind nature of silence. It only offers up more questions. How can we explore in detail something that is, by definition, not even there, devoid of information? David Weigel’s hasty conjecture that the War on Women is already over, is at least one frighteningly Orwellian example of spin that takes advantage of this double-blind. In April of this year, Weigel generated embarrassingly piecemeal logic that attempted, in essence, to silence women’s claims of having been silenced. The next step from that mindset is that women’s views on the conditions by which they live their own lives could become the proverbial tree that falls but for no-one to hear: oblivion.
Sadly, in an era when increasing numbers press rhetoric into the public sphere proclaiming their disenfranchisement, these demonstrations of silence are nothing more than another symptom of the slow corrosion of a popular voice in American democracy. Impasse has become the new currency in American (and perhaps global) discourse, the new means by which factions attempt to raise consciousness. If there is no better way to silence a sector of society than to ignore it, then there is no better weapon against diversity than silence.
When people must resort to metaphorical displays of powerlessness on behalf of any issue, and more specifically, when they symbolize their lack of leverage with silence, they have reached an impasse that has encompassed the collective imagination. And if we have no imagination for solutions in the War on Women, then we have witnessed the darkest hour in one of the blackest ongoing narratives in human history.
At least, in a country where both sides of the political spectrum claim to pride themselves on living in a democratic country, sounding the alarm of voicelessness could be a wake-up call for all ideologues. As I keep my ear to the ground, continuing to try and decipher the noise, I won’t be holding my breath.