Silence and ethics or the ethics of silence



Do you need to talk about everything? Have you been criticizing the oppressor more than you are criticizing the attempts of resistance and confrontation by the oppressed?

In more than thirty years of popular political militancy, I understood that there is a lack of ethics in publicizing the opinions of many people. People who think they are simply saying what they think or expressing an opinion, but in fact what seems like a simple opinion deals with realities and very delicate subjects and that doesn't seem to get into the account of those who speak.

Often when I comment privately or publicly that the person needs to reflect on this inadequacy, the response received is: "I have a right to say anything I want and you can't criticize me for it." Interestingly, there is an immediate clear contradiction in this argument: I can talk about everything, but you can't talk about me (I can talk about everything, but you can't include my position in your “everything”).

I will report some examples that I lived. If anyone recognizes themselves as the person who spoke to me, please know that all the examples I cite are numerous, so I'm talking to you too, but it's not personal. I hope you can reflect, rethink and ask yourself some questions before making your opinion public.

Example (1): instead of going on strike paralyzing the buses, you should release the turnstile, so the damage would only be for the bosses and not for the population, so they would have more support.

Example (2): the ___________ movement (fill in this blank with black, lgbtqia+, from the favela, feminist, indigenous, pcd's, peasant, union...) should be less aggressive and seek to win sympathies instead of confronting, explaining and teaching and not fighting.

Example (3): instead of setting fire to the Borba Gato statue, they should___________ (fill in this blank with having put up a sign, having a debate, having a theater skit, having another day, having a peaceful act).

Example (4): the event on September 7th of Fora Bolsonaro should ___________ (fill in this blank with having been canceled because the fascists scheduled on the same day, having been elsewhere, being summoned with other material, expelling non-leftists , invite non-leftists, be more red, be more green and yellow…).

Example 5: the ___________ (fill in with China, Cuba, People's Korea, Venezuela, Palestine, Government of RN, Angelina City Hall) should face ___________ (fill in with media persecution, blockade, economic crisis, lack of water, the flood, the revolt of the religious, the manipulation of the local rich...) in another way and not like that, being more democratic.

It would certainly be possible to make a list of ten, perhaps a hundred or a thousand examples of this type.

I agree with some of these proposals and often with the arguments that justify some of these proposals and disagree with others. The point, however, is not there. The question is: do you have the right, legitimacy and conditions to talk about it? Who do you say this to? And to what end? Do you really think it helps to criticize movements from segments, categories, anti-imperialist countries or portions of society that already suffer from countless oppressions, pressures and challenges, which are often under a lot of pressure as a category on strike or a movement from the periphery? who already lives under the boots of repression every day?

Have you been criticizing the oppressor more than you've been criticizing the oppressed's attempts at resistance and confrontation? Do you ask yourself these questions?

We live in a historic moment of what Márcia Tiburi calls “consumerism of language”,[1] which she describes as follows: “…we act in a vacuum. We are in the mere reproducibility of information, which means nothing to us that we act in its direction. Consumerism is exactly this consumerist emptiness of language and repetitive action. We run away from the discernment that analytical and critical thinking requires. We fall into the consumerism of language”.

In addition to not being committed to analytical and critical thinking, I would add that the “ethical commitment” is lacking. Although Tiburi refers more to reproduction, I include the issue of opinions simply because yes, because “I have the right” to participate in the consumerism of language, putting my “opinion” in circulation, my “guessing”, to make myself part of the market as a language trader, but often without "earning anything".

Certainly, anyone who participates in the consumerism of language by providing merchandise in the form of an opinion without ethical commitment participates in the violence produced or fueled by it. She says “Violence is experienced, provoked and suffered in people's daily lives in the most diverse ways. In practice, violence is commonplace, that is, it is common and shared. What we call “symbolic violence” is among us, dangerously intertwined with physical violence. This means that in physical acts of gender, race, age, social class violence there is always symbolic violence. But all symbolic violence weighs materially. (...) Talking is doing, but we think little about this aspect. When the violence of speech reaches communication, which on an institutional scale reaches the mass media, the danger intensifies”.

The question is: do you know how much your supposedly issued opinion participates in this violence? When you criticize the periphery movement that consciously decided to take direct action to open a debate, you are being criminalized by the establishment, experiencing all forms of violence, just because you have the right to express an opinion you become part of that violence. Do you do this by decision or unconsciously?

We need to remember that if you're a middle-aged, wealthy (or even well-off) educated white heterosexual Western male Christian your voice is always more amplified, you always have more speech space, and if you use that space to contribute to violence rather than to contribute to confronting it, you are not even a humanist, much less an anti-capitalist, feminist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist...

If you are a man with these characteristics who, on top of that, have an expanded communication space, because you are a journalist, commentator, or because you are representative, your responsibility increases and the chance of you ending up contributing to violence as well. Obviously the same happens with a white woman who uses social space to criticize the anti-racist movement instead of criticizing and facing racism, a straight person who uses her space to criticize LGBTQI+ people instead of facing LGBTphobia and so on.

Ah, but then you're saying that I will never be able to speak and criticize people, movements, peoples more oppressed than me or movements of oppression that I don't suffer from or categories that I don't organize? Well, not in principle. But, above all, you need to ask yourself some questions before issuing your “intelligent participation in the blockade of Cuba” as Caetano and Gil suggest in the song Haiti, or an “education plan that looks easy and fast”. I suggest the following questions and that you ask yourself these questions every time you think about expressing your opinion publicly in relation to the oppressed and exploited:

(1) How much have I contributed to facing the oppression or exploitation that these people, movements, organizations or peoples face? Because you don't want it to be known that you contribute nothing or almost nothing (even in the space of language consumerism) to confront oppression, but you think you have the ethical right and legitimacy to criticize the oppressed who are trying to survive, right? This will eventually make it clear which side you are on.

(2) Do I know enough about the conditions in which these oppressed and exploited people are living, this confrontation, for my opinion to be minimally grounded and really be constructive? After all, we keep criticizing Bolsominions for talking about things they don't understand or don't understand with the least reasonable level of depth. You don't want to risk reproducing this unacceptable behavior, do you?

(3) I have legitimacy to be respected and heard by those who resist and fight because I am a daily partner both because I study and make daily and in-depth reflections, and because I pay attention to my behavior and that of those in around me facing that oppression and systematically contribute to the organization, funding, elaboration and struggles of that movement or people? If your answer is yes to most of these questions, you have more legitimacy to talk about a condition you don't have.

For example, researchers Lilian Schwartz and Lia Vainer Schucman dedicate much of their academic production, time and activism as white women to confronting structural racism in historical debates and in the sociology of whiteness. If they have an opinion on how the anti-racist movement should act or position itself, certainly the black movement militants will receive these suggestions and criticisms in a different way than from you who only spoke when the Black Lives Matter became fashionable and never spoke of the subject again. Even so, Lilian came to be heavily criticized for issuing opinions on the situation of trans people, so being an ally of a movement and having the legitimacy to speak about it does not give you a release card to feel legitimate to speak of any of them.

(4) If you answered yes to the previous three, now we have to ask ourselves about the method: to whom, by what means and with what attitude will I issue my opinion? Yes, because even if you are an ally, you have knowledge and legitimacy, if you simply put it on your Facebook or publish in an article on São Paulo Fault you might just be helping the establishment to use your criticism to increase violence against those people who are already massacred, violated and who have no space (sometimes not even to respond to your opinion or criticism). Once again, you will be part of the symbolic violence that affects these people and you will be feeding all the other types of violence that these people, movements and peoples suffer. Doesn't society need your help to be violent against these people? She is really effective in massacring.

So look for a person in the movement with whom you have a relationship, ask first how the mobilization is going, how the person is doing, choose a way of expressing your opinion, make it respectful, non-violent and that you can listen before and after speaking. In this case, listening is not just listening, but reflecting, elaborating and submitting your opinion and everything you hear to a process of empathy and commitment.

Can you write and publish? Yes. As long as you really use your space much more to confront the oppressor and only occasionally to opine or criticize the oppressed and their ways of surviving and fighting against oppression and exploitation. As long as the public in the place where you publish is formed primarily by the people with whom you are dialoguing and as long as you take triple care with the terms so that you are not a vector of violence with someone who is already greatly violated on a daily basis and fivefold care with the possibility of use than to write by the oppressor.

Anyway, popular wisdom keeps reminding us that we have two ears and one mouth, that the word is silver and silence is golden. If, most of the time, the only attitude that crosses your mind is to give an opinion without reflection, perhaps keeping silent is the only really ethical option.

And if you forget that, carelessly express your opinion by exercising your consumerism and the reaction is great, remember again to think that those who are oppressed every day and suffer the most terrible violence that you might not even be able to imagine how are may have difficulty being rational in the response. Remember that reacting to this violence on a daily basis is extremely exhausting and requires energy from those who face the world. So the reaction to his lack of ethics, even if it was just a “small slip” may seem (or be) too aggressive or disproportionate, but it is probably an aggressiveness against the oppression as a whole, not against his “small slip”.

For those who suffer every day, reacting is difficult and often the reaction cannot be against the “great oppressor” to defeat him, but against someone closer who reproduces and feeds the oppression and is accessible. But the aggressiveness of the reaction could be against the whole system and the strong part is you, so the obligation to be understanding and not respond with the same aggressiveness is yours, if you have the social privileges. No, that doesn't necessarily mean "beat up in silence", it means if you made a mistake. When someone warns you, reflect and if you get convinced, delete and apologize. If you think you're right, maybe erasing is still advisable, after all you said or wrote something that was interpreted as violent to someone other than the oppressor. Or maybe you should leave and start a process of reflection, empathy, solidarity, commitment, learning from the pain of others.

Reflect, be more careful, apologize, change. All of this will make you stronger and the world will have one more point of support against oppression and exploitation and no longer someone “listening to the smiling silence of São Paulo in the face of the slaughter”.

*Elenira Vilela is a professor at the Federal Institute of Santa Catarina and a union leader.



[1] TUBURI, Marcia. How to defeat techno macho nazifascism or whatever name you want to give to the evil we must overcome. Rio de Janeiro, Record, 2021, p. 122 and 123.


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