Into great silence – the overlooked, the discounted and the ignored

By John Higgins & Mark Cole

Public discourse is ever more scripted and performative.

Fired by the cult of busyness and an addiction to instant commentary and judgement, the unscripted and experiential get disappeared. In the public sphere we have to fit with someone else’s categories and representations of our reality. To step outside of the taken-for-granted habits of discourse is to invite incredulity or dismissal, polite or otherwise. Dialogue is dying amidst a cacophony of action without consideration and conversational catechisms.

Consider the average job interview. Notionally, these exercises are designed to give the candidate the space to demonstrate who they are, what they’ve done, and what they’re good at. But, at the hands of the HR bureaucracy and habits of corporate homogeneity, this is rarely the case in reality. Instead, the interviewers actively anticipate the answers that they want to the questions they ask. The job of the candidate, then, is not to answer candidly, to demonstrate an independence of mind; it is to second guess the panel and offer up the response that it would seem that they would want. The modern corporation seeks a sanitised and bounded ideal of diversity through practices like this.

What the interviewers want, so it seems, is a tidy repackaging of one’s experience so it can be commoditised as evidence of a commitment to the institution’s corporate truth. In these selection processes, we have to bend, not take, the knee to demonstrate that we accept the rules of the game of the employer – that we are willing to play out the prescribed role of ‘The Applicant’:

‘First, are you our sort of person?

Do you wear

A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,

A brace or a hook,

Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch’

(Sylvia Plath, The Applicant)

The textbook version of the interview propagates the fiction that it’s a place where the employer seeks to find out about the applicant – and the applicant responds in order to give an account of themselves that feels honest. Each question would allow an empowered applicant and an approachable employer to explore what the overlap is between the institution’s approved agenda and the applicant’s own priorities. In most cases the power differential is such that the demands of the institutional agenda (and its self-referencing nature) overwhelm an individual’s capacity to be distinctively visible. Self-silencing becomes second nature when people learn how unwelcome their unsilenced, unlicensed, self is.

Living in silence

When John documented the experience of some of the lowest paid mass of NHS staff in their own words, he was met by heartfelt incredulity by some of the higher ranks. Where was the balance in what he wrote? Surely there must be other voices to offset the howl of despair, rage and powerlessness he’d encountered. The experience of the historically over-looked must be made public only in the presence of voices approved of by the historically figural. A society wide habit of mind that can be seen in the All Lives Matter response to Black Lives Matter.

For people accustomed to being silenced it is a slog, a battle even, to be heard – which for those comfortable with, and invested in, the status quo is hard to appreciate. For the already, always heard, the assumption is that the unheard need a technical tweak, to learn some breathing skills to contain their anxiety so their vocal chords work when it comes to speaking up in public. Hearers may in turn recognise that they need to give their listening skills and face a polish.

What is ignored is the imbalance in social power, how the silenced speaker and inattentive listener are sustaining patterns of encounter, where some people’s reality is more important than others, where some people are no more than insignificant, replaceable lumpen proles in the eyes of others.

Where an interviewer smiles politely and moves on from a candidate’s invitation to examine critically the questions being asked in the interview, that applicant is being dismissed as unfitting to the assessment template. The interviewer demonstrating that this encounter is not an enlivening one between peers, but an appraisal by someone passed fit to pass judgement on behalf of the institution. In interviews, we are often deliberately not being heard, because, in our responses, we have shown ourselves to be beyond the pale.

What such exchanges reveal above all else, is the balance of power that exists in these encounters and how this sets the boundaries for the discourse within the corporation. To borrow from Akala what not being heard reveals are practices and experiences of powerlessness and inequality, which a nicely delivered workshop or a tweak or two of training in the arts of speaking up and listening up are going to do little to address:

‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely

But absolute powerlessness does the same

It’s not the poverty

It’s the inequality that we live with everyday

That will turn us insane’

(Akala, ‘Absolute Power’)

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