“The other side of words”: Silencer


“Reduce (smb) to silence. Silence and make minorities invisible. Silence (sth.). Silence our desires. This is the definition given by the Le Robert dictionary to the term silencer . This entry echoes what was more commonly referred to as “the liberation of speech” at the time of the #MeToo movement . Taken up virally at the end of 2017, this hashtag triggered a massive movement of denunciations of sexual violence which extended to many spheres and categories of victims (as with #MeTooincest).

A number of researchers and activists point out that through these massive denunciations, it is the social listening granted to the violence experienced which has been opened up. The term silencer underlines the need for conditions of benevolent and well-informed listening so that speech can be expressed.

When this speech occurs but is minimized or denied, we witness what is called “revictimization” or “secondary victimization”. This phenomenon affects other types of violence, racist, homophobic, transphobic. The issue of sexual violence, highly publicized and recognized as legitimate, illustrates this process that can be transposed to other situations.

To silence a victim is to reduce him or her to silence in various ways: it is not necessarily a question of threatening censorship, but of an absence of listening or of listening that does not have the positioning adequate, due to a lack of impartiality (personal proximity to the alleged aggressor) or lack of training. Witnesses can also be “silenced” when speaking causes harm (complaint for defamation, risk of ostracization in one’s professional or personal circle).

In practice, the risk of re-victimization points to the need for awareness-raising on a general scale, and training of listeners as well as supervisors in public institutions called upon to receive testimonies.

One spontaneously thinks of the police and the questions that can discourage a rape victim from recounting her experience – how was she dressed, had she consumed alcohol – by referring to an implicit guilt on her part.

We can mention the role of other institutions, such as universities. Research carried out on female students’ appropriations of the problem of sexist and sexual violence show that they distrust institutions but call on those closest to them, such as the University, to take responsibility. Institutions can provide recognition of the harm suffered, through criminal and/or disciplinary proceedings.

All public institutions have been required since a decree of March 2020 to set up a reporting unit for any form of harassment, violence or discrimination. The way in which these devices can operate in a confidential and impartial manner is currently a crucial issue. If this issue is visible for the cases which strike those of the political parties which have these cells, it currently affects the public service as a whole.

“Silencer” refers more broadly to symbolic domination, which consists in depriving dominated people of speech and self-narrative. It was at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s that this reappropriation of speech, making it possible to reclaim oneself and one’s body, hatched in feminist movements: single- sex awareness groups thus made it possible to make collective problems that appeared to be private and individual, such as violence but also non-procreative sexuality.

These groups acted as places for the politicization of subjects that seemed relegated to intimacy. We can consider that their function has been amplified by social networks in the contemporary era, which multiply online and offline exchanges. They play a fundamental role in the legitimization of consensual sexualities, apart from heterosexuality or in redefining the traditional representations of it.

Finally, the involvement of younger generations in feminist collage collectives , which convey messages that are equally transinclusive (“transphobia kills”) or anti-racism (“stop Asian hate”) in the public space, are part of this desire to bring a word that we make sure will no longer be reduced to silence, as the collage expresses it: “take off, we will stick it back together”.

Author Bio: Viviane Albenga is a Lecturer in Sociology at Bordeaux Montaigne University