the terror of language & the horror of silence

cw: sexual assault, sexual violence

This week, I intended to write about the book that made me want to be a Social Studies teacher, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, by Michel-Ralph Trouillot. In this account of how power and privilege shape the production of history, Trouillot, a Haitian anthropologist, says, “words are not concepts and concepts are not words: between the two are the layers of theory accumulated throughout the ages. But theories are built on words and with words. Thus it is not surprising that the ambiguity offered by the vernacular use of the word history has caught the attention of many thinkers since at least antiquity. What is surprising is the reluctance with which theories of history have dealt with this fundamental ambiguity.”

This is how I started. Thinking about silences and the decontamination of language & reversing traditional power flows in language. How can we decontaminate our words? We have discussed how silence can be used in many ways, both as a tool for liberation and as a mechanism with which some exert power of others, and we have seen how NourbeSe Philip decontaminates the words of the past. But how can we continue this process of decontamination in our everyday life?

But recent federal court decisions have influenced and manipulated my focus for this response. Over the course of three years at this institution, I have also frequently considered how we can decontaminate & rethink our silences. The silences that sometimes follow hurt feelings, and specifically the silence that often follows trauma. These silences, used as a form of healing, resistance, and renegotiation, have time and time again been used against us. And what do we do when the capitalist, white supremacist, heterosexual, cis-patriarchy both continues its implementation of word-violence, and briefly forgoes its use of destructive language, holding silences against those who use them as a survival tactic.

Today, united state district judge william smith ordered the university to expunge the record of the student found guilty of sexual assault in the most recent case, among countless other real-life horror stories, of sexual misconduct on college campuses. smith both used our words against us by criticizing a widespread effort to contact the judge and convey the harm inherent in allowing the assailant to return to campus: “These tactics, while perhaps appropriate and effective in influencing legislators or officials in the executive branch, have no place in the judicial process. This is basic civics, and one would think students and others affiliated with a prestigious Ivy League institution would know this.” and he punishes the survivor for her year of silence immediately following the assault: “The case was uniquely postured,” stating that “it is not the court’s role to determine the facts of what happened between john doe and Ann Roe; to decide whether the court would have, in the panel’s position, found john doe responsible for sexual misconduct; to evaluate whether the court would have made the same judgement calls on evidence and other issues as Brown did; or to determine whether the procedure John received was optimal.” the judge both implies that his only job in this case was to determine whether the university treated john doe with fairness given the policies in place at the time of the assault, and in my opinion, that it was suspicious and “unique” of Ann Roe to report the assault only after the change in policy. My stomach turns and my fingers feel heavy with anger. And I hate the look of the words that I am typing on this screen to ask, where is the justice? How can we effectively undermine the control and authority of a federal judge who has the power to co-opt our use of both words and silence? I am left in silence.

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