Campus Discourse and the Silence Track

Walter Bruno

In May of 2014, I found myself at a downtown brasserie in Montreal. We were toasting two students on their graduation from McGill University (M.A., English). They were a couple, a local boy and his Australian girlfriend, both about twenty-five. They seemed charming and sharp-witted.

It turned out to be an instructive hour, during which the young woman did the talking and her beau kept his eyes on her in silence. He had no opinions unless asked, and I remarked to myself that he was the model of a Humanities Man, 2014. If he was merely moody, he had a reason: his lady had decided to abandon him “because she needs to live alone” (said her father to me).

After the salad course, she poured her heart out to us. She was worried about graduation, not love. She had been on the Internet, she said, looking for places to do a Ph.D. when she came back to North America. One school in America had caught her eye: it offered work in her field and proximity to good source materials. A handful of decent names taught there. But she had turned it down.

“Why?” I asked. She replied that she’d read the campus newspapers and seen announcements for what she called “far-rightist clubs.” “One group had the odor of white supremacy,” she whispered. “The other touted ‘men’s rights.’” All this was conveyed to me in tones that an Evangelical would use in describing Satanism.

We all politely admitted shock, and for that she was grateful. She could never be on such a campus, not one that allowed such clubs. “You mean,” I asked, “allowed them a charter?” “Yes,” she said, “Imagine: letting the fascists hold meetings.” I asked what she thought of free speech. She said it was pretty much a conditional, and needed to be parsed by race, class, and gender. She would also deploy silencing-of-voice theory. I pressed her to say whether she herself would listen to people arguing against her own values. “Oh,” she said, “never.”

“What about this?” I asked: “The right to speak is not applicable to you. It has no force, except to allow for ideas that you find shocking.” Her smile, already somewhat strained, faded, and she looked around, perhaps for the server. “You don’t need permission to say the conventional,” I persisted. “The only freedom that needs protection is that of shocking disagreement.” She looked at me as if I had discovered a rip in her jeans.

Here are the systems that enjoy hegemony on campus: gender feminism, postcolonial theory, antinormative sexualities, and neo-Stalinism, with race theory folded into the postcolonial binder. Underpinning these are postmodernism and its theories of discourse. With these systems in place, one is empowered to make a priori decisions on whom to listen to and whom not, and who to shield from what might be said. It has nothing to do with reality, which is a cognitive variable anyway.

The imprint of Stalinism comes from the fact that class struggle is still used as an analytical filter, and that there are traces of dialectics in postmodern and feminist theory. In the Stalinist mind, the struggle for Truth is a military matter, and it ends in domination for winners, silence for losers. As for postcolonial theory, it is a form of identity politics. In that sense, it is aligned with gender feminism, and it is to the latter movement that this article will pay closest attention.

Free Speech. All postmodern systems struggle with the question of what speech is. Is it a nexus of ideas? Not necessarily. In today’s world, to speak is not to construct or mediate an idea; it is merely to mark something that preexists, according to place, history, and identity. Things don’t get randomly ideated by speech. In fact, there’s no such thing as an “idea”; the term is a classical fallacy. Today’s view is that speech is not the communication of thoughts, but an act. It is better to talk, not about disembodied speech, but about a speech act. Speaking then becomes enforcing, and, as we all agree, to enforce is not to encourage dialogue.

These notions are loosely agreed to by the new campus hegemonies, which are interconnected and borrow from each other. None of them is committed to free speech as a sui generis value for cognition or for progress. After all, how can you value a speech act without knowing in advance what it is going to do?

If all of speech, by definition, is an act, how do you counter-act? By “interfering.” Interfering describes a posture used to change an unprogressive speech act, a sort of critical subversion. Theoreticians use the phrase “interfering in hegemonic discourse,” which means disabling the flow of understanding when the latter comes to reflect, construct, promote, or accredit a worldview that is now dated. This can happen in conversations—or in campus regulations.

Talking is not a neutral ground. How you talk is based in who you are; who you are is a question of your historical rank in hierarchies. Therefore, there are two classes of speakers: those who talk to exert their (historically authorized) power, and those who speech-act to fight against it. It is not the talking that counts, but the identity of the speaker.

I have just tested the word “interfering” by typing the word into an academic search engine. The engine returned (second to the top) a paper titled “Interfering with Gendered Development: A Timely Intervention.” The author is Prof. Mindy Blaise, and her homepage indicates an activity that “relates to engaging with ‘post-developmentalism’ and [with] post-empiricism, [in order] to reconfigure early childhood research.…A large part of this work involves…feminist practices that are useful for interrupting the notion of the developmental child.”

Thus, interfering is also “interrupting.” Interrupting the male-gendered development (of boys) can be “timely,” this abstract suggests, but it doesn’t give examples (we imagine them as horseplay, competition, individualism, etc.). Every gender will have its wrong-gendered developments to interrupt.

Careful, though: interrupting is a word fraught with conflict. “Don’t interrupt!” cried the mothers of my generation. Even schoolteachers said it, mostly to the class narcissist. In fairness to Prof. Blaise, we can’t conclude from her abstract that her intentions are directed toward rudeness or censorship. However, the vocabulary certainly is, and her readers might glide to further interruptive notions, such as disrupting and shutting down an unwelcome speech.

Silence as the Feminist Shibboleth

Silence is also central to gender-feminist theory. Wielded by feminists, silence becomes vested with totemic and even metaphysical values and connotations. In fact, the theory posits that speech (auditory discourse) is as much defined in silence as it is in expression and vocalization. A child, say the feminists, is taught to express what hegemony wishes her to express. That which is too female-gendered is “silenced” by the male-gendered tutor. To extend the construct further, women have been underrepresented in the culture only because someone has silenced them, or because women have self-silenced in order to survive.

In this theory of gendered silence, male-gendered discourse silences women, whether it intends to or not. Either it obliterates women’s “voices,” or women self-silence. Also, male-gendered discourse can occur anywhere: in a human resources department, a subway car, or a lecture hall. To accept the act of listening to this discourse is to accept silencing. Even to allow male discourse to occur is itself an act of silencing women.

Armed with this insight, one could intervene against discourse that silences women (or visible minorities, or gay people, or the disabled, or the poor) and against discourse that is thought to cause self-silencing. Any wrong-gendered (or wrong-racialized or hetero-normalized) discourse is fair game. In this way, counter-silencing the discourse of the rival hegemony means un-silencing the latter’s many and diverse victims.

Where does this leave us? Interruption and interference are now prominent in the postmodern toolkit and deployed everywhere. Those professors in the humanities who don’t teach interruption must look over their shoulders for students who have been taught it by others. Fear is in the air. We should think carefully about that discursive slide and about its consequences.

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