‘We must not fear speaking up to people in positions of power,’ Tony Jones told School of Life Professor, Patrick Stokes last Tuesday. ‘Silencing debate is a slippery slope that leads to repression.’
It also leads to victimisation, vilification and trauma.
We must hear the stories, experiences, perspectives of everyone. We must not stifle and silence public discourse, knowledge and ideas.
But we do.
All the time.
It’s so very easy to speak with impunity and conviction when you’re in a position of power and influence. Then your voice counts more. Your privilege and position authorises and legitimises even the most abhorrent point of view. Witness Trump, Hanson and Abbott who speak with narcissistic conviction and confidence. They hear their voices amplified and watch their reckless opinions propelled around the world by convenient carriers – technological and maniacal, and it inflates their self-righteousness.
It’s easy to say everyone needs a voice from a podium and platform created with education, training and implicit acceptance from an established reputation amongst the elite.
Too often, though, the voices of the meek, (think: marginalised, oppressed, less educated or fluent) and those considered shrill (think: women) are muted by the lofty dismissal of those not willing to hear, value or even consider.
Those used to power, privilege and a podium can’t see that the space they take up, the noise they make, leaves little room for those not used to speaking up and being heard. Nor do they appear to notice, or care about, how or where their utterances land, or who they hurt.
But there was the interesting take out from the Jones-Stokes interview: it’s easier to speak when you’ve been invited to. And when you’re protected.
For those used to speaking (and being heard), the invitation appears implicit. Any forum will do. For others, it may need to be explicit.
Protection takes various forms. It could be a conscious choice, made again, by the assurance and confidence that comes from privilege, power or patrimony. It could be the choice to ‘live in a bubble’, like ahem, Tony Jones, (really??) when you’re protected from backlash and the violent, hateful rhetoric and attack from the trolls on social media.
Of course, people like Tony don’t need to use social media to have their ideas amplified and circulated. Tony has a platform, a reputation, and expertise in speaking out loud. Those who don’t have such a platform need to find one. Those that are brave enough and willing choose social media to find the echo they need around the world. But the ramifications can be silencing. I know. I’ve stepped back because I’m tired of trolls.
Yassmin Abdel Magied “the most publicly hated Muslim in Australia” also knows. Her ‘free speech’ wasn’t palatable to those in positions of power and privilege so she was taken down and is now effectively in exile.
Another form of both invitation and protection comes from the interesting circumstance of being invited into the sanctity, for a short time at least, of the ABC studios. There, the Q and A audience have 90 minutes of protection and opportunity.
And yes, it is a powerful moment when those not used to speaking find the courage to attend one of those live events, and share their experiences, stories and often powerlessness to those on the panel, who have no choice, in the moment, to listen. That is the contract, right?
Likewise, we on our sofas have no right of reply. We can choose to not hear, yes. But it is in those moments that many of us are captivated. And it can catalyse change: once we hear, understand and accept, we can see something new…
But what happens to those people when they leave the sanctity of that studio? You were unable to speak confidently about that, Tony. And conceded that actually, no, it could then get ugly. Poor Duncan, the guy who now has funds to buy an $80,000 toaster, investigated and chased by … oh, yes, those people from News Limited – those guys with power.
It takes so much courage to speak out when you have neither power, position, privilege or protection.
People on the margins, people from our diverse communities have stories we need to hear. They come with ideas we need to integrate, perspectives that could make us all richer, smarter, more compassionate and connected.
These are often the same people who need to be protected from the ‘free’ and incredibly reckless authorising speech that renders them mute and keeps them in hiding.
Tony, I land on your side. We must all have the same right to speak freely and to be heard equally.
Oh, but that’s the other thing… We don’t value all people or all voices equally. And actually, many people hold the marginalised, less privileged, less vocal in secret contempt.
In our culture, we’ve internalised the myth that the lack of progress of women is a personal failing of women themselves. We fail to understand that unconscious (and conscious) bias, discrimination and stereotyping creates doubt and confusion and a sense that ‘maybe there’s something wrong with me?’ It leads to women stepping back, staying small, safe and silent. It limits ambition and stifles talent.
I reckon this myth extends to all people on the outer: ‘anyone who has not been blessed with privilege, anyone who has not ‘made it’ is deficient.’
‘If I can do it, why can’t you?’ is the unspoken criticism.
However, as you’d agree, Tony, we need to hear those voices.
Perhaps it’s incumbent on those of us with privilege, or in positions of power, like you, like me, like so many blind and caring people, to yield their position in front. Maybe it’s time to invite, encourage, promote, make room for and stand side by side with those not used to being seen or heard.
Maybe it’s up to us to invite the people with stories to speak and protect them from the reckless and vile. That doesn’t mean we speak for them. It means we stand proudly side by side with them and let go of any expectation that they should find their own space, platform and podium.
Speaking equally side by side.
Once we hear, understand and accept, we can change.
Maybe that’s the freedom we need?