On Silence & Speaking Up (Or Why Our Voices Matter)


The way we react and talk about trauma has changed thanks to the rise of social media and 24-hr news cycles.

Recently, we saw this following the massacre in Orlando, the murder of MP Jo Cox, the EU Referendum more generally. All very different events. All followed by outpourings of grief, condolence, anger, support that went viral and turned entire sites into electronic eulogies.

In the context of grief, tweeting your feelings is acceptable, sharing a photo of a rainbow flag or a poignant lyric on Instagram is taken as given, commenting on Facebook is almost expected.

Yet a delicate shift occurs when grief turns into advocacy.

When a story goes viral that is not something as quantifiable as pure loss, there’s a certain blurriness to how we should respond.

Knowing when to speak is a skill that’s just as important as knowing what to say and how to say it.

Why do we sometimes stay silent?


Often, due to certain ambiguities, people sit back and say nothing despite believing that something really needs to be said. It may be a suggestion, a critique, an idea or just a question, but instead of saying it – or writing/sharing/asking it – they remain silent.

Following Orlando, grief, shock, and horror were the initial reactions to spread across the world wide web. Not only were more and more people being pronounced dead, but it was quickly noted that this was an attack on an LGBTQ club on a Latinx night. As  Owen Jones argued on TV and in column inches, regardless of political or religious leanings this was a homophobic attack and a racist attack.

My friend, Olivia (aka INKA) posted about this on Facebook:

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 16.48.44.png

Olivia @inkasongs on Orlando Massacre

Olivia nails two key points:

  1. We ‘need to talk about the ugly stuff, the gritty stuff.’
  2. We need to educate ourselves before we talk or write or express opinions on this ugly, gritty stuff, not least because we can only speak from our own experiences.

In our case – as straight, white, cisgender, educated women from good backgrounds -we cannot and must not talk for but do our best to stand with those communities we want to support beyond our own. This is a valid reason to not stay silent, but to endorse/share/credit those with whom we ally. It’s leaving space for their voices without stepping away from the issue.

A third idea I found interesting, however, was Olivia’s suggestion that it felt easier to express support and demand more awareness in the wake of Orlando than the Stanford Rape Case, which equally upset her, and equally demands awareness and action.

Having been at UNC just as the End Rape On Campus (EROC) group started to gather momentum, stories like that of the Stanford survivor and the favouritism shown her attacker are all too familiar. The now viral letter (as well as that of the assailant’s father) emphasise just how much still needs to be done to address a culture where victim-blaming, sexual violence, socially-accepted sexism are prevalent but hushed up.

Yet my response, like Olivia’s, was to share the story as it developed. Not to vocalise something myself. 

Why though? Why didn’t we speak up?


This wasn’t silent support. I remember talking to a friend about Stanford, wanting to write about the differences between the US and UK representations of ‘rape culture’ in recent years. Yet I didn’t know how to voice it and worried about doing so.

Was it, as Olivia suggested, because rape is something we’re not meant to talk about (insidious enough if true)? In which case, is it fear of judgement, fear of backlash, that makes us reign our voices in?

Thing is, unlike face-to-face discussions, virtual interactions are unsynchronised. This means you can’t develop a full theory of mind for your audience. You can’t see how your words are being taken and respond.

Researchers also theorise that social media sharing appeals to our desire to ‘belong’, so creating content or supporting a controversial topic might be unconsciously perceived as detrimental to our overall goal in being online.

Whether it’s trolls on twitter or friends on Facebook, exposing yourself, potentially alienating yourself or being rejected by your peers, is a risk you may run in speaking up. We’re risk averse creatures and loss is psychologically more painful – even as a theoretical – than the pleasure of gaining. This is something I’m sure some will have witnessed pre- and post-EU Referendum (or really any imbalanced relationship).

Self control therefore becomes key. Out of an express desire to be welcome within our internet communities, we expend the cognitive attention and effort to hold back our emotional responses, to suppress our voices.

Some Theory on Self Control & Speaking Out

DISCLAIMER: I’ve been out of academia and a long way from my old seminars on cognition for about two years now, but in Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman discusses the results of a psychologist called Roy Baumeister, which may explain why Olivia found it ‘easier’ to write a post about Orlando than Stanford.

Baumeister’s results suggest that if you have to force yourself to do something – like suppress an emotional reaction to an experience – then you become less willing (and potentially less able) to exert self-control when the next mental challenge comes along. Called ‘ego depletion’, this phenomenon accounts for why, if we’ve mentally exerted ourselves, we lack motivation to exert ourselves again in a similar or different way.

Whilst Baumeister’s results are from tests done over short periods of time, Olivia’s emotional reaction to the Stanford survivor’s letter was something she admits she suppressed due to some sense of social taboo. This would increase levels of anxiety – suppressing emotion is maladaptive and increases physiological symptoms of stress (Gross 1998; Weinberger, Schwartz & Davidson 1979) and links to health costs (Bonanno & Singer 1990). And given the in-your-face, neverending nature of social media, the desire to say something/write something was likely something confronted numerous times over a number of days.

To stay silent therefore took mental effort. And this may explain why the words flowed more readily when only days later the media flooded with word of Orlando. The temptation to express herself was already there. It had lingered for a significant amount of time. And it had depleted her mental energy to the point that she couldn’t pipe down any longer.

So Should We Speak Out?


The simplistic answer is yes.

The real answer is silence does have a time and place.

But when it comes to speaking up, as Simpson and Bostley’s spoken word performance said, “Movements are driven by passion.” This does not mean “asserting yourself dominant in a world that already puts you there.”

Take a moment to remember Jo Cox: an activist, an advocate, a politician, a voice. Her murder was an attempt to silence. Then the media jumped in, twisting the story to revolve around a “lone-white-male-with-mental-health-problems” – that stigmatising cliche, glinting like a knife in the lights of the circus.

The tech, science and LGBT writer, Jennifer Harrison, wrote the following:

Speaking out like this highlights key points that were overshadowed by the horror of the killing itself. In sharing it, Jen outlined where key systemic problems exist. Some of which others might have missed. Or not thought about before. For example, whilst I had commented on the mental health element, I’d missed the stories of Muhsin Ahmed and Nahid Almanea.

The problem is speaking out is still scary.

We all know that using our voices and standing up for our values is important. In the workplace, at home, amongst friends, in wider society, on social media. That doesn’t make it easier.

Audre Lorde said: “We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language. Next time, ask: What’s the worst that will happen? Then push yourself a little further than you dare. Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. And the world won’t end … And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.” 

But fear can be overcome. It may even play a useful role in slowing us down, making us think before we speak or act.

So what if you can’t jump on the social media bandwagon. If you have something to add that you think is relevant and important or perhaps missing from the conversation then say it when you can.

We need to talk about ‘the ugly stuff, the gritty stuff’. But we need to speak up even once the social media furore is over, when the cameras stop rolling and the papers move on. Once the ribbons are gone from our profile photos, and safety pins from our clothes.

After all, homophobia, racism, sexism, rape culture, stigmas around mental health – all of these things will still exist once you’ve had time to educate yourself and process. And who knows, maybe your voice can help another person find theirs.

After all, Olivia and Jen helped me find mine.



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