Handy Reference Guide to Identifying Oppressive Silencing

18 Mar

To assist you in identifying and resisting dominant and unequal power relationships in your life, we’ve compiled a list of common phrases people in historically dominant roles have been conditioned to and may use to try to silence oppressed others, particularly when they perceive their dominance to be challenged.

The quotations below were used by men against women and are thus patriarchal; however, one could expect to find similar strategic dismissals and silencing of the accounts and concerns of people of color, working class and poor people, queer and LGBTQI people, young people, fat people, disabled people, and other marginalized folks in the discourses of those who discriminate against them. The simultaneous and intersecting nature of oppression is also considered here.

These strategies, and others we may have missed, can be found in any order, but from our experiences attempts to silence us commonly go something like this:

Assert authority
Question your knowledge/judgment
Delegitimize your response
Delegitimize you
Enforce dominant point of view
Shut down debate or conversation

Strategy: Assert authority.
1.    No, but…
2.    You’re wrong.
3.    You’ve been wrong before.
4.    That’s not true.
5.    Are you sure? I’m going to Google it.
6.    Really? I don’t believe it.
7.    That’s never happened to me / anyone I know.
8.    I’ve never seen / heard of that.

Strategy: Question your knowledge/judgment.
9.    You don’t know that for sure.
10.    You don’t know what you’re talking about.
11.    That doesn’t count.
12.    This is a completely different situation.
13.    You’re making it about (structural oppression goes here) when it’s not.

Strategy: Delegitimize your response.
14.    You’re overreacting.
15.    You’re blowing it out of proportion.
16.    Why are you making such a big deal out of it?
17.    Stop getting so emotional.
18.    Don’t tell me you’re upset about this.
19.    You’re getting angry /raising your voice / shouting again.
20.    Not everything is about…(structural oppression goes here).
21.    Stop trying to make it about…(structural oppression goes here).
22.    You always say that.
23.    I knew you’d do this.
24.    Can’t we talk about something else?

Strategy: Delegitimize you.
25.    (Rude laughter)
26.    (to someone else) She’s crazy. Don’t listen to her.
27.    Why can’t you just relax?
28.    Can’t you take a joke?
29.    I’m just joking.
30.    You’re so serious all the time.
31.    You’re so angry all the time.
32.    You have no sense of humour.

Strategy: Enforce the dominant point of view.
33.    You have to accept that…
34.    You must agree that…
35.    It’s obvious that…
36.    You must be stupid to think that…
37.    Everybody knows…

Strategy: Shut down debate or conversation.
38.    This is a stupid / irrelevant / useless conversation.
39.    Why are we still having this conversation?
40.    It’s not important.
41.    Not everything is a campaign.
42.    You’re making it worse by talking about it.
43.    Why don’t you just give it up already?
44.    I’m done.
45.    Are we done?
46.    Are you happy now?
47.    I’m gonna hang up.
48.    I don’t debate on this topic.
49.    I’m not having this conversation.
50.    I said I was sorry! Isn’t that enough?

13 Responses to “Handy Reference Guide to Identifying Oppressive Silencing”

  1. Chichi March 19, 2012 at 4:13 am #

    Reblogged this on Just your average ABCD.

  2. Andy April 13, 2012 at 6:50 pm #

    Nice list! My personal most-hated expression is, “it’s just common sense”. That definitely belongs in group 5. I’d add that, as psychologically-different, I’ve come across many of these silencing tricks. Ones which are all too familiar to me: “different situation”, “proportion”, “too emotional”, “never happened to me”, “never seen/heard”, “don’t know what you’re talking about”, “why are you so upset”, “you always say that”, “stop making this about (structural oppression)”, “don’t be so serious / angry”, “have to accept that”, “obvious that”, “stupid to think”, “everybody knows”, “not important”, “making it worse”, “are you happy”. With psychological difference, there’s also the trick of pathologising the response as an effect of psychological difference (i.e. of “abnormal” thought patterns) rather than as awareness of oppression or as a different perspective. I think that’s an instance of an appeal to epistemological privilege, which also happens to other groups (i.e. if member of unmarked group and member of marked group have different perspectives, member of unmarked group is taken as right due to their unmarked status). Also, these kinds of claims are also used to silence dissident political/ideological positions, regardless of what is known about the person making the statement.

    I think there might be a few more ways of silencing that didn’t make the list. One of my first academic projects was to try to formulate a typology of oppressive discourse. I think I was working broadly from the view that oppressive discourse functioned as a set of “unfair moves” in language – not relative to an “ideal” type of language (I always rejected that) – but in terms of ranking or foreclosing particular claims (admittedly I was looking at rather different examples, more from politics and media than everyday situations, but the dynamics are similar). You’ve already caught several of the types I was thinking about at this point. Groups 3 and 4 are clearcut examples of what Trevor Pateman calls “invalidation” – i.e. metacommunicative statements (=statements about statements) which question your right to make a statement rather than the content of the statement (sometimes based on a prohibition of the content, sometimes of the speaker). Type 5 and possibly 6 would be what I was terming “impositional discourse” – a certain statement simply being posited as a precondition for conversation (and in some cases also anathematisation).

    Just dug out my list, here’s the others I had down:

    Form-Imposition: where they reduce your argument to their frame and then “rebut” it on their own terms (e.g. replacing a fairness claim with an efficiency claim; assuming an argument against prisons or stop-and-search starts from the premise of cutting crime)

    “Hurrah/boo-words” and “anathematisation”, where they attach a value-judgement to certain positions (e.g. “if you think that, you’re a thug / hater of freedom / soft on crime”)

    “Myths” (Barthes) and “naturalisations”, where they present what appears to be factual knowledge, but is actually a reference back to a set of more-or-less circular media constructions, stereotypes or constructed judgements (e.g. “black people are inferior because they’re overrepresented in prison”, “gay sex is wrong because the family is natural”, “if women are so smart then why are most Nobel Prize winners men?”)

    Operationalism: limiting what can be thought by identifying people, objects, etc with particular positions or functions (“security forces”, “human resource management”, identification of “democracy” with multiparty polyarchy)

    Essentialism: Reading contingent or relational features as eternal or internal features (black people are essentially criminal, women are essentially good at housework, Muslims are essentially prone to terrorism)

    (Some uses of) Phatic Discourse – discourse which serves simply to create a communicative bond, without content – though I’m not sure it’s always oppressive – it’s more that it’s oppressive when political claims get used in phatic discourse instead of communicative discourse ( “racism could become as unproblematic as the British Weather just because anti-racists kept their mouths shut” (Pateman p. 40-1), example: racist jokes)

    Repressive Discourse: use of “restricted speech codes” or speech-prohibitions to avoid revelation of structural relations/oppression – mystifying an impositional claim (“would you like to shut up now?”)

    Deagentification: covering-up oppressive actions by discussing them without an agent – often via passive voice or displacement of agency (“three dead in clashes between protesters and police”, “violence erupts on protest”, “police were forced to open fire”; c.f. victim-blaming)

    Reification: displacing characteristics of social relations onto objects or abstractions (“the market requires us to work”, “globalisation requires austerity projects”)

    Doublespeak: using and simultaneously violating a binary opposition (e.g. Blair saying he always opposes killing civilians whatever the reason; police claiming they “do not want violence”)

    Impossible Discourse: Constructing language to preclude certain possibilities appearing (e.g. one either has states or Hobbesian chaos – other types of social relations are unthinkable)

    Repressive Tolerance: Permitting the expression of a view but denying its content as an imperative claim or argument made to persuade (“that’s your opinion”, “you’ve every right to think that, but that issue doesn’t bother me”)

    Repressive “We”: Including all humanity, an implied in-group, or the listener, in a contentious statement (“we all know the state is necessary”; “we need to win this war in Afghanistan”; “we’re all better-off if the government is run in a fiscally sound way”; “nobody benefits from crime”)

    Substitutionism: one agent claims to be another agent (“Britain votes against EU reforms”, “the proletariat took power through the party”, “the nation has expressed its will”, “the judge stated that this judgement expresses public outrage about the case”)

    Escalation or Utopian Duplication: meeting failure with more of the same (“prison isn’t deterring people, so more people need to be jailed”; “the current political system is unfair – let’s replace it with a system which really works by the same principles”; “let’s solve the problem of red tape by setting up a committee to look into ways to reduce it”)

    Confusion/Conflation Discourse: use of the overlap in a linguistic category to conflate distinct cases (“we can’t ignore the law in the case of Dale Farm, because then we’d have to support serial killers and rapists too!”)

    Double-bind: a complex kind of discourse which combines a negative injunction (“obey your parents”, “submit to abusive partner”, “don’t argue with police”) with a more abstract contradictory injunction (“show independence”, “see your treatment as reflecting your own wishes”, “don’t tolerate injustice”). Double-binds are especially notorious for fucking people up.

    The theory started to drift a bit because I also noticed there were ways of blocking communication which occurred through violence/terror (responding with violence instead of words), territorial arrangements (making it spatially impossible to articulate a claim), and character-armour and psychological alignments (coming to enjoy an oppressive arrangement, feel threatened by its loss, etc). These are also extra-linguistic ways of silencing. Silencing also sometimes refers “off-text” so to speak. There’s an argument that pornography involves an illocutionary claim (a command or instruction) which silences women because it creates a propensity to mis-hear or misinterpret speech-acts (to interpret “no” as “yes”). There’s similar claims in Said’s Orientalism that Orientalism provides frames which silence by reclassifying certain discourses (e.g. when an Arab deviates from the expected script, it’s attributed to Arab unpredictability).

    Quick questions: Which of these do we also use against right-wingers? Should we be using them? I get the feeling most people use group 1 when dealing with something we’ve got a strong view about (especially if one also has specialist knowledge), and 2 whenever they think someone’s made a claim that has no grounding. The function of 1 is to express the strongness of one’s belief or the believed existence of an empirical or logical basis for it; the function of 2 is to attempt to induce scepticism in relation to a claim which seems unfounded (though both of them can silence as a side-effect of doing these things). 3, 4, 5, 6 are all meant to silence, but people might also be tempted to silence another discourse which is oppressive or unsafe for us. For instance, a Sista might be tempted to use claims similar to group 6 (“I don’t wanna talk about this, it’s triggering”), group 1 (“you’re wrong that buses cause more pollution than cars, let me google it”), group 3 (“the issue of war in Uganda is not about your insecurities about white privilege, Kony isn’t doing this stuff to piss you off you know!”, “the Palestine issue is not about anti-Semitism!”) and to third parties, group 4 (“he was a typical middle-class right-wing student who had no idea what he was on about”).

    Though Sista might be more prone to ask “where did you hear that?” or “what makes you think that?” – is this a non-silencing way of saying the same kinds of things?

    Also, does it make a difference if we say “that opinion is stupid” rather than “you’re stupid”, or if we say “that opinion is wrong” instead of “stupid”? (I’ve heard people using those kinds of claims in ways which are also rather silencing, with the speaker still maintaining an absolute privilege to decide what’s permitted, but interpellating the listener as a discrepant neoliberal subject who can choose to change rather than an inherently bad subject).

    What about putting “I believe…” or “I feel…” before the statements? (“I believe you’re wrong”, “I don’t feel this issue as being about race”).

    Also, would a non-silencing speech-style be focused on relations among the speakers rather than statements of facts – or would that “psychologise” issues of structural oppression? And would it have to adopt the norms of nonviolent communication (focusing on why the discussant feels something, rather than whether it’s an objective belief)?

    • Sista Resista May 3, 2012 at 7:19 pm #

      Hi Andy,

      Really interesting to note that you were also interested in a typology of oppressive language! Your ideas and suggestions are excellent and well taken. Also, you raise some very important questions about if/when we use these or similar tactics in resistance to or against those with whose ideologies we don’t agree. We definitely need to learn how to critique, challenge, and defend in non-oppressive ways, and you’ve given us a lot of food for thought. Thank you!

      In solidarity,

    • Alex May 10, 2012 at 7:10 am #

      These are a lot of really great questions. I think about things like this often, especially about what tactics we use against the right and how we might be spreading misinformation or saying things that are misleading/spun, when we know that a large reason the right has so much support is because of their propaganda of mistruth.

  3. Kyle September 24, 2012 at 7:02 am #

    This is just about how to identify it. It says nothing of how to resist or what to do once you’ve identified it.

    • Sista Resista September 30, 2012 at 11:26 pm #

      Some suggestions of ways to resist and challenge silencing have published elsewhere on the site. We also have advice on how to deal with oppressive behaviour in our Feminism Tips twitter feed.

      From: https://sistersofresistance.wordpress.com/2011/06/12/sisters-of-resistance-terminology-toolkit/#guidelines

      SoR/BoR actively challenge sexist, racist and all other forms of oppressive sentiments wherever they arise. This often is in regards to problematic language or offensive statements. When you decide to challenge someone:

      Be assertive. Challenging the patriarchal status quo generates flak. This means that confidence and an assertive attitude is crucial.
      Use facts. Refer to the Resources section to get statistical information that supports your radical, anti-imperialist feminist view.
      Provide an alternative. Having deconstructed the remark, provide an alternative analysis. Bring it round to what’s important.

  4. Mareaper May 12, 2013 at 4:37 pm #

    Reblogged this on Victoria2070a.d.blog.

  5. bo May 17, 2014 at 2:45 am #

    Reblogged this on Bobbi's Blog and commented:
    Don’t be silenced!


  1. Sisters of Resistance Terminology Toolkit « sisters of resistance - May 29, 2012

    […] oppressive silencing (n): ways people in historically dominant roles have been conditioned to use to exclude or discredit oppressed others, particularly when they perceive their dominance to be challenged. (See also: Handy Reference Guide to Identifying Oppressive Silencing) […]

  2. Feminist Principles to Live By « sisters of resistance - August 22, 2012

    […] Level 1 rewards come from external sources, and are often in the form of positive feedback for dressing/acting in a “feminine” manner (e.g. being docile, acting prim and proper, sitting in a “ladylike” manner, keeping your mouth shut, not expressing your wants/needs/frustrations/desires, doing your hair, wearing makeup/earrings/heels or otherwise “prettifying” or “getting dolled up”). They include such things as catcalling and other forms of street harassment, overheard conversations, and problematic comments from family, friends, co-workers, or strangers.  These rewards may make you feel alternately: good, nauseated, or even both at the same time.  And since, under patriarchy, we are expected to seek, appreciate or be grateful for these kinds of petty compliments, rejecting them may result in attempts at oppressive silencing. […]

  3. Public Conversations About Rape Raps + Allyship Tips | sisters of resistance - April 3, 2013

    […] Consistently check yourself for oppressive behavior, such as silencing tactics, singling yourself out as a hero/expecting acclaim for being a “good person,” or […]

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    […] “Handy reference guide to Identifying Oppressive Silence“ […]

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