Silence is no answer to injustice

For years now, anti-rape activists have been working publicly to eliminate rape culture. They have not won the battle. The apparent mistake they continue to make is to break the silence.

For years now, LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer) activists have been speaking out about heteronormativity and violence against sexual minorities, including and especially the rape and murder of black lesbian women. The apparent mistake they continue to make is to break the silence.

People living with disability try enormously hard to get ableism taken as seriously as other forms of discrimination and bigotry. The apparent mistake they continue to make is to break the silence.

Many black people spend a lot of time drawing attention to and fighting the daily expressions of white supremacy and anti-black racism more precisely. The apparent mistake they continue to make is to break the silence.

The alleged instrumental value of silence is extolled, but the make-up of those who typically argue, angrily, that we should stop talking about discrimination is curious.

You don’t find survivors of rape flooding editors’ inboxes to call for silence. It is mostly men who are turned off by open and frank talk about rape culture.

It is mostly men who troll activists and feminists online in an attempt to silence them with harassment. When they cannot win the argument for silence, they demand silence with violence. The very objective of breaking the silence is to puncture male privilege and violent masculinity. It is little wonder that it is largely the beneficiaries of patriarchy — men — who have a problem with frank talk about rape culture.

Homophobes are no different. They cannot stand LGBTIQ people who refuse to lurk in the shadows. Many of these beneficiaries of entrenched heteronormative tropes hate sexual minorities who live openly, heaping scorn on us. Our visibility — our talking ourselves into social existence — is experienced by beneficiaries of heteronormativity as an encroachment on their imagined innate right exclusively to occupy public space.

Able-bodied people are as fond of silence as homophobes are. When we are not violently silencing people with disability, like killing patients who are mentally ill in state-sponsored institutions masquerading as health facilities, we alternatively role-model the demand that “they” be silent by ghosting them. We find ourselves asking the person pushing a wheelchair what the person sitting in the wheelchair wants to drink, as if being unable to walk also means you cannot speak for yourself. Many of us dare not even look at someone with a disability, because their bodies repulse us, just as a man once put his hand over his son’s eyes one morning at the Braamfontein market in Johannesburg when he saw my boyfriend and me holding hands.

You do not find people with disabilities requesting invisibility. We render them invisible because social reality privileges our bodies.

Racism is no different. Why is it mostly white people who think we must stop talking about race? It is obvious: mostly whites perpetrate racism and all white people benefit from the global history of white supremacy and anti-black racism. Even white allies in the fight against white supremacy benefit from anti-black racism. You cannot opt out of being a beneficiary, because it isn’t up to the ally how the racist treats them differently to how they view or treat the ally’s “black friend”.

Liberal whites caught up in virtue- signalling often struggle to see these elements of how racism functions. These liberals do not mind talk of violent racism but show their true colours when talk of privilege starts. White allies wish us to remain silent about white privilege. They only want a chat about the white men who put a black man in a coffin, or racist estate agents. They do not want frank talk about implicit bias.

It is little wonder some white people get angry when they stumble on any conversation about supremacist ideology, white privilege, colonialism, apartheid or unconscious bias.

Perpetrators of racism, and beneficiaries of racism, benefit from silence. Talk about racism threatens to result in the licence to be a racist or to be a beneficiary of racism being revoked by victims of racism one day successfully fighting back against expressions of white supremacy.

How on earth is silence an answer to injustice? Silence doesn’t eliminate structural injustices — it leaves existing structures intact.

It is not even enough to talk about injustices. You can talk for hours yet economic racism could persist. Justice, and substantive equality, demand a programme to change the material conditions of society that wrongly and arbitrarily benefit men, straight people, able-bodied people, whites and other hegemonic groups.

Silence precludes any prospects of dismantling unjust social structures. This is why we must resist the motives of those who try to silence conversations about discrimination. They are so crafty that they now even misappropriate the language of the left to prop up their hegemony.

It is astounding how many men and how many white people in South Africa talk as if they are victims. Such is the strategic posture adopted by them to retain their historic licences to benefit from oppression.

Our only choice, if we are serious about working towards a just society, is to counter the demand for silence with a very loud insistence to change the world. Changing the world starts by naming injustice. Silence isn’t a live option for any serious advocate of justice.

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Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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