The Mother of All Questions
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The Mother of All Questions

Rebecca Solnit

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📖 eBook - ePub

The Mother of All Questions

Rebecca Solnit

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The Mother of All Questions is Solnit’s sequel to Men Explain Things to Me and includes her new essays on feminism.

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Silence Is Broken
A Short History of Silence
“What I most regretted were my silences. . . . And there are so many silences to be broken.”
—Audre Lorde
The Ocean around the Archipelago
Silence is golden, or so I was told when I was young. Later, everything changed. Silence equals death, the queer activists fighting the neglect and repression around AIDS shouted in the streets. Silence is the ocean of the unsaid, the unspeakable, the repressed, the erased, the unheard. It surrounds the scattered islands made up of those allowed to speak and of what can be said and who listens. Silence occurs in many ways for many reasons; each of us has his or her own sea of unspoken words.
English is full of overlapping words, but for the purposes of this essay, regard silence as what is imposed and quiet as what is sought. The tranquility of a quiet place, of quieting one’s own mind, of a retreat from words and bustle, is acoustically the same as the silence of intimidation or repression but psychically and politically something entirely different. What is unsaid because serenity and introspection are sought is as different from what is not said because the threats are high or the barriers are great as swimming is from drowning. Quiet is to noise as silence is to communication. The quiet of the listener makes room for the speech of others, like the quiet of the reader taking in words on the page, like the white of the paper taking ink.
“We are volcanoes,” Ursula K. Le Guin once remarked. “When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.” The new voices that are undersea volcanoes erupt in open water, and new islands are born; it’s a furious business and a startling one. The world changes. Silence is what allows people to suffer without recourse, what allows hypocrisies and lies to grow and flourish, crimes to go unpunished. If our voices are essential aspects of our humanity, to be rendered voiceless is to be dehumanized or excluded from one’s humanity. And the history of silence is central to women’s history.
Words bring us together, and silence separates us, leaves us bereft of the help or solidarity or just communion that speech can solicit or elicit. Some species of trees spread root systems underground that interconnect the individual trunks and weave the individual trees into a more stable whole that can’t so easily be blown down in the wind. Stories and conversations are like those roots. For a century, the human response to stress and danger has been defined as “fight or flight.” A 2000 UCLA study by several psychologists noted that this research was based largely on studies of male rats and male human beings. But studying women led them to a third, often deployed option: gather for solidarity, support, advice. They noted that “behaviorally, females’ responses are more marked by a pattern of ‘tend-and-befriend.’ Tending involves nurturant activities designed to protect the self and offspring that promote safety and reduce distress; befriending is the creation and maintenance of social networks that may aid in this process.” Much of this is done through speech, through telling of one’s plight, through being heard, through hearing compassion and understanding in the response of the people you tend to, whom you befriend. Not only women do this, but perhaps women do this more routinely. It’s how I cope, or how my community helps me cope, now that I have one.
Being unable to tell your story is a living death and sometimes a literal one. If no one listens when you say your ex-husband is trying to kill you, if no one believes you when you say you are in pain, if no one hears you when you say help, if you don’t dare say help, if you have been trained not to bother people by saying help. If you are considered to be out of line when you speak up in a meeting, are not admitted into an institution of power, are subject to irrelevant criticism whose subtext is that women should not be here, or heard. Stories save your life. And stories are your life. We are our stories, stories that can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison; we make stories to save ourselves or to trap ourselves or others, stories that lift us up or smash us against the stone wall of our own limits and fears. Liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories. A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.
Violence against women is often against our voices and our stories. It is a refusal of our voices, and of what a voice means: the right to self-determination, to participation, to consent or dissent, to live and participate, to interpret and narrate. A husband hits his wife to silence her; a date rapist or acquaintance rapist refuses to let the “no” of his victim mean what it should, that she alone has jurisdiction over her body; rape culture asserts that women’s testimony is worthless, untrustworthy; anti-abortion activists also seek to silence the self-determination of women; a murderer silences forever. These are assertions that the victim has no rights, no value, is not an equal. These silencings take place in smaller ways: the people harassed and badgered into silence online, talked over and cut out in conversation, belittled, humiliated, dismissed. Having a voice is crucial. It’s not all there is to human rights, but it’s central to them, and so you can consider the history of women’s rights and lack of rights as a history of silence and breaking silence.
Speech, words, voice sometimes change things in themselves when they bring about inclusion, recognition, the rehumanization that undoes dehumanization. Sometimes they are only the preconditions to changing rules, laws, regimes to bring about justice and liberty. Sometimes just being able to speak, to be heard, to be believed are crucial parts of membership in a family, a community, a society. Sometimes our voices break those things apart; sometimes those things are prisons. And then when words break through unspeakability, what was tolerated by a society sometimes becomes intolerable. Those not impacted can fail to see or feel the impact of segregation or police brutality or domestic violence: stories bring home the trouble and make it unavoidable.
By voice, I don’t mean only literal voice—the sound produced by the vocal cords in the ears of others—but the ability to speak up, to participate, to experience oneself and be experienced as a free person with rights. This includes the right not to speak, whether it’s the right against being tortured to confess, as political prisoners are, or not to be expected to service strangers who approach you, as some men do to young women, demanding attention and flattery and punishing their absence. The idea of voice expanded to the idea of agency includes wide realms of power and powerlessness.*
Who has been unheard? The sea is vast, and the surface of the ocean is unmappable. We know who has, mostly, been heard on the official subjects: who held office, attended university, commanded armies, served as judges and juries, wrote books, and ran empires over the past several centuries. We know how it has changed somewhat, thanks to the countless revolutions of the twentieth century and after—against colonialism, against racism, against misogyny, against the innumerable enforced silences homophobia imposed, and so much more. We know that in the United States class was leveled out to some extent in the twentieth century and then reinforced toward the end, through income inequality and the withering away of social mobility and the rise of a new extreme elite. Poverty silences.
Who has been heard we know; they are the well-mapped islands, the rest are the unmappable sea of unheard, unrecorded humanity. Many over the centuries were heard and loved, and their words disappeared in the air as soon as they were spoken but took root in minds, contributed to the culture, like something composting into rich earth; new things grew from those words. Many others were silenced, excluded, ignored. The earth is seven-tenths water, but the ratio of silence to voice is far greater. If libraries hold all the stories that have been told, there are ghost libraries of all the stories that have not. The ghosts outnumber the books by some unimaginably vast sum. Even those who have been audible have often earned the privilege through strategic silences or the inability to hear certain voices, including their own.
The struggle of liberation has been in part to create the conditions for the formerly silenced to speak and be heard. An Englishwoman tells me that Britain has a growing prison population of old men, because countless victims whom no one was willing to hear before are now telling of sexual abuse. The most notorious British case is of BBC entertainer Jimmy Savile, who was knighted and lauded and made into a celebrity. He died before more than 450 people charged him with sexual abuse, mostly young women but also younger boys and adult women. Four hundred and fifty people who were not heard, who perhaps did not think they had the right to speak out or even to object or to be believed. Or rather knew that they lacked those rights, that they were the voiceless.
John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, said to the BBC of Savile, in 1978, “I bet he’s into all kinds of seediness that we all know about, but are not allowed to talk about. I know some rumors. I bet none of this will be allowed out.” Lydon’s words weren’t allowed out until 2013, when the unedited interview was released. Around that time other stories surfaced of pedophile rings involving prominent British politicians. Many of the crimes had happened long before. Some reportedly resulted in the deaths of child victims. Scandals involving public figures provide national and international versions of what are otherwise often small, local dramas about whose story will prevail. They are often how the winds of opinion change, as they prompt conversations. Sometimes they lay the groundwork for others to come forward to speak of other damage and other perpetrators. Lately, this has evolved into a process using social media to create collective tribunals, mass testimony, and mutual support that could be seen as a version of that “tend-and-befriend” behavior outlined above.
Silence is what allowed predators to rampage through the decades, unchecked. It’s as though the voices of these prominent public men devoured the voices of others into nothingness, a narrative cannibalism. They rendered them voiceless to refuse and afflicted with unbelievable stories. Unbelievable means those with power did not want to know, to hear, to believe, did not want them to have voices. People died from being unheard. Then something changed.
The same story could be told of innumerable North American figures, of whom the famous recent examples are Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, charged by several women with workplace sexual harassment and persecution, exploitation, blackmail, and psychological abuse over a half century; Bill Cosby and his serial drug-aided rapes over the same time span; and Jian Ghomeshi in Canada, charged by several women with brutal assaults—powerful figures who knew their voices and credibility could drown out those they assaulted, until something broke, until silence was broken, until an ocean of stories roared forth and washed away their impunity. Even when the evidence was overwhelming some still hurled abuse and threats at the victims and found ways to deny the merits of their stories. Because to believe them would mean questioning foundational assumptions. It would be uncomfortable, and many speak of comfort as a right, even when—especially when—that comfort is built upon the suffering and silencing of others.
If the right to speak, if having credibility, if being heard is a kind of wealth, that wealth is now being redistributed. There has long been an elite with audibility and credibility, an underclass of the voiceless. As the wealth is redistributed, the stunned incomprehension of the elites erupts over and over again, a fury and disbelief that this woman or child dared to speak up, that people deigned to believe her, that her voice counts for something, that her truth may end a powerful man’s reign. These voices, heard, upend power relations. A hotel cleaning woman launched the beginning of the end of International Monetary Fund chief and serial assailant Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s career. Women have ended the careers of stars in many fields—or rather those stars have destroyed themselves by acts they engaged in with the belief that they had the impunity that comes with their victims’ powerlessness. Many had impunity for many years, some for lifetimes; many now have found they no longer do.
Who is heard and who is not defines the status quo. Those who embody it, often at the cost of extraordinary silences with themselves, move to the center; those who embody what is not heard or what violates those who rise on silence are cast out. By redefining whose voice is valued, we redefine our society and its values.
My subject in this book is that subspecies of silence and silencing specific to women, if anything can be specif...

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APA 6 Citation
Solnit, R. (2017). The Mother of All Questions ([edition unavailable]). Haymarket Books. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)
Chicago Citation
Solnit, Rebecca. (2017) 2017. The Mother of All Questions. [Edition unavailable]. Haymarket Books.
Harvard Citation
Solnit, R. (2017) The Mother of All Questions. [edition unavailable]. Haymarket Books. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Solnit, Rebecca. The Mother of All Questions. [edition unavailable]. Haymarket Books, 2017. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.