Gretchen Carlson, whose sexual harassment claims led to Roger Ailes's downfall, recently stated that "the culture of concealment and denial is coming to an end" and the Silence Breakers were just named Time Magazine's Person of the Year. But a culture of silence does not simply end when its victims are ready to speak up. For victims to be heard, we must understand what role we play in building the silence around them.
Silence is a sexual predator's weapon, protecting them from detection and prosecution. Simon Hallsworth and Tara Young explain that while silence is a common feature of most crimes, it is the noise that receives our attention. Silence, however, is not created in a vacuum. Collectively, we create walls of silence that make crime invisible, allowing it to persist. Similarly, according to Eviatar Zerubavel's The Elephant in the Room, a conspiracy of silence is the result of individual and collective efforts at denial.
The culture of silence is the most striking pattern in recent sexual victimization revelations. The underlying message in the investigative reports is that walls of silence were built by perpetrators, control agents and bystanders, highlighting why victims are silent, or silenced, for so long. This machine of silence enabled perpetrators. People looked away while victimization occurred and went to great lengths to ensure silence. Active measures to promote silence continue today, including attempts to undermine victims and those who report their stories.
How does this happen?
The combination of secrecy and power influences what people know and what they decide to do.
Perpetrators ensure silence by threatening victims if they dare to speak out or by attacking their credibility when they do. They also define their crimes in ways that justify their actions, which explains recent problematic apologies by those accused. The combination of secrecy and power influences what people know and what they decide to do. As reports have shown, powerful people control information about their sexual crimes and whether it can be accessed or discussed. This extends to non-famous perpetrators, too, who use their power over others to abuse and silence.
Control agents, including members of the criminal justice system or religious leaders, are complicit in building these walls when they do not listen to victims or when they cover up crimes they become aware of. Professionals, like lawyers, also silence victims by upholding rape myths to justify sexual assault. They also obscure the reality of the offence when discussing it in ways that minimize the crime.
Silencing by erasing criminality or using unclear language changes the perception of whether a crime has occurred, making whistle-blowing or reporting seemingly unnecessary. It also creates space for the indifference of bystanders who contribute to the wall when they remain morally mute about their knowledge or fail to hold perpetrators accountable.
It is easier to side with perpetrators who merely ask for our silence over victims who ask that we bear witness and share their burden, especially when the perpetrator is part of our social group. But inaction makes us enablers who fail past and future victims.
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The collaborative nature of maintaining secrets about sexual victimization makes speaking out complicated. But the ability to bring an end to these crimes lies in the hands or voice of the person who will point it out. Silence breakers acknowledge the secret and make others aware of its existence. They are often resented and vilified in order to intimidate others who may want to speak out as well. That's why Zerubavel characterized silence breaking as "'a moral act par excellence" because we must override our individual discomfort at rocking the boat and the group pressure not to.
The collective chorus of the voices of victims of sexual victimization has pierced the silence that surrounded them. But real change can only come once we acknowledge our role in silence building and commit to no longer empowering perpetrators by allowing their behaviours to go unchecked. In addition to amplifying the voices of victims, let us tear down the walls of silence that kept them from being heard for so long.
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