Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Shall we keep silent? Meg Harper

Hurray, hurray, I did some writing today! I was only polishing up a short story that is my contribution to the anthology I’m publishing for my summer school creative writing group (Good old Lulu!) – but it made me feel I can justify my presence on this blog still! I read some of the recent posts and I am bowled over by the sheer single-mindedness of some of you, writing, writing apparently all day long, be it on Facebook, Twitter, your own blogs, other people’s blogs or even something you might actually submit to an agent. Words, words, words. Voices, voices, voices. Talking, talking, talking.
As a result, I’m thinking that this is a forum where I can raise something that is much on my mind at present. I had thought not – because I had not thought you are people for whom it would make a difference to be silent – but of course it would! You are anything but silent in countless different ways.

So where are we going here? OK - an explanation!

I am much troubled by the issues of people trafficking, modern slavery and bonded labour. My most recent novel ‘Piper’ tackled the slavery issue obliquely. The central characters were faced with a dilemma – would they choose enslavement and relative safety or freedom and the likelihood of death? It appears to me that, despite the efforts of Stop the Traffik and the Anti-Slavery Campaign, there is very little attention being paid to these appalling and widespread practices – so it is in my mind to mount an awareness raising campaign. I recently went to a workshop run by Eugenie Harvey, of ‘We are What We Do’, the outfit she set up to create the book ‘Change the World for a Fiver’, followed by the ‘I’m not a plastic bag’ campaign and more recently the book ‘Teach your Granny to Text’. According to her, I should test out my bright idea for changing the world on a group of ‘normal’ people and get their feedback!
Well, I don’t want to insult ABBA blog readers by calling you ‘normal’!!! You are clearly far from that! But I can’t really think of anyone I associate who is ‘normal’ really, so forgive me testing out my thinking on you!
My counter-intuitive idea for making a noise about those whose voices are silenced by their oppressors behind hidden doors in a succession of anonymous locations - is to use silence. In terms of non-violent direct action, silence seems to me to have immense appeal. My idea is to encourage people to be silent in their workplace to draw attention to the plight of those who are silenced as they work as slaves – silenced by those who ensure they are voiceless by denying them any form of communication with the outside world in surroundings where the language is not their own. Consequently, even their screams are silent.
Which is where we get back to whether writers at work are silent or not. And it seems to me that you are not. Many of you talk to the outside world through a variety of Internet applications throughout your working days. So I can certainly ask you if you would stage as silent protest, backed up in advance by explanatory notes on your web-pages or Facebook profiles. And I can ask you what you think of the idea:
• do you think it would seed and spread?
• what are the things I need to think about?
• how could I make the ground fertile and make the silence that I sow run rampant?
• Should I see this simply as awareness raising, directing people to the excellent work of various anti-slavery/people trafficking lobbies or should I, for example, target a particular piece of legislation?
• Should I aim for a Day of Silence on which people could do as much silence as they wanted to – or should I ask people to make regular briefer, silent protests whilst spreading the word – or both? Or something else?

Or maybe I should just keep quiet and get back to my writing? : )


catdownunder said...
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catdownunder said...

If you cannot communicate you cannot complain.
Silence is precisely what those in authority want. No, I am not being paranoid. I speak from experience. It is what my day job is about. It is why I spent a decade of my life getting International Literacy Year off the ground. If you want to make a difference - help someone communicate. Perhaps mentor a young writer from another background?
(Apologies for not being able to work out how to alter the first message!)

John Dougherty said...

I disagree, Cat. Yes, silence can mean submission, but it doesn't have to. Have you ever had someone stare at you, and stare, and stare, and stare, and not utter a word? It's disconcerting.

Similarly, in a debate or argument, silence can be a very effective way of getting the other person to talk themself into a corner, or to reveal the inadequacies of their argument.

You're right to say "If you cannot communicate you cannot complain"; but the sort of silence Meg's proposing can communicate. The question now is: how to create a silence that will?

I'm not sure what the answer is, but I think that if she can get it right it could be a very powerful silence indeed.

catdownunder said...

Yes John, of course silence can work if you are communicating on your own behalf. Does it work when you are there to support others? I do not think so. It is like the translator remaining silent. The message will not get across - but I will be interested to see what other people have to say. You may all disagree with me!

Elen Caldecott said...

when I was young my school was very keen on sponsored silences. But, of course, the focus then was on how difficult it was for eight year-old to keep quiet for any length of time. It wasn't intended to be symbolic.
They seem to have fallen out of favour now. I don't know why.
Maybe someone else has a theory?

Nick Green said...

I guess, Meg, we are looking for the paradoxical: a silence that communicates, and communicates a clear message.

I think it definitely COULD work, so long as it were bookended by communications that explained what it was for; for example a blog saying, 'tomorrows blog will be a silence, in protest etc' and then actually posting an empty blog the next day (rather than just not posting at all).

Silences are very powerful as John says - we commemorate the dead with x minutes' silences, after all. We just need to make them


Dianne Hofmeyr said...

The Black Sash was a movement in South Africa in the mid 50's. It still exists today but in another form. In the days of 'apartheid' it was a protest movement of white women against the revocation of voting powers for 'coloured' people and a law that insisted 'black' people carry pass books (identity books). The woman stood silently with Black Sashes across their bodies in rain and sunshine in front of Parliament, in an effort to shame the law-makers into giving voice to the voiceless. They were silent but everyone knew what their silence stood for and it enraged the 'pro-apartheid' supporters. I think silence works when the object of it has been been properly communicated first. In Post Apartheid South Africa the Black Sash works to empower marginalised communities and individuals to 'speak out'. So there is a place for both.

Leslie Wilson said...
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Leslie Wilson said...

George Fox, the founding Friend of Quakerism, once held 300 people in silence for three hours on the top of Pendle Hill in Lancashire (it was raining) and we still remember that, in the Society of Friends. Indeed, out of the silent worship of Quakerism has come rather a lot of action, like the anti-slavery campaign.
In fact we are bombarded with so much information that silence might well be an effective contrast. I think, in fact, there are two kinds of silence, one is powerful, the other is the silence of the victim, or of indifference. It's a question of how to effectively make a space for that silence and make sure other people notice it, if that;s the purpose. The Black Sash women were visible, and the object of any protest - as opposed to a spiritual exercise - is that it should be visible, or audible. Maybe get people to sign a pledge to participate in the silence, on a given day? And spread that round the Net, as well as press-releasing it?

Nick Green said...

I was walking in Hatfield forest just the other week, and was reminded just how rare and intense true silence is. Even there it wasn't anywhere near really silent – Hatfield heath is in the shadow of Stanstead airport, but between the planes, in the tracks dividing thick coppices, it was pretty silent. To someone used to the town or city, that silence lies on the ears like a weight.

Yes - it's so rare these days. Perhaps that could make it more effective than speech, which would only be lost in the babel of other voices.

Meg Harper said...

I am disappointed to finally get back here and find some comments deleted! C'est la vie. Yes, I am thinking along the lines of a silence that speaks - certainly one that is 'bookended' by explanation. I like Nick's idea of flagging up that 'tomorrow's blog will be silent'. I agree with Leslie and Nick - I'd be trying to be paradoxical and use a silence which is powerful to fight the silence of victims. It is the silence of vigil, the silence of dignity and respect. That would be my hope anyway. I don't know if it would work - I did a silent vigil for James Mawdesely when he was stuck in Burma and have no idea if it made a difference. But I believe that small things if done by enough people can make a difference. What's that quote about evil triumphing because good people remain silent? I guess I want to turn that on its head. It seems to me that we are so awash with words that their power has been dissipated. Certainly doesn't feel life the pen is mightier than the sword! So maybe silence might be! Thank you for your comments everyone.

Veronica Zundel said...

Are you familiar with the work of CHASTE, run by Carrie Pemberton? It focuses on sex trafficking in Europe, and aims not only to raise awareness (especially in churches) but to establish a network of safe houses where women and children who want to get out of the sex industry can be accommodated and helped to rebuild their lives. They have a book called Not for Sale which looks interesting.

Penny said...

Meg,tried to post this comment earlier but a bad day for email. I think that it's an interesting idea, but can't quite see how a virtual silence would work.

Maybe - thinking of John's post and those enigmatic Anthony Gormley figures on the beach, one could arrange a gathering of silent authors standing pen and blank paper in hand somewhere significant and easily available to journalists & media (eg Trafalgar Square) that might have an impact. You-tubed as well of course. And on some related day/birthday/anniversary.

But it would take a lot of organising.

catdownunder said...

I am obviously not communicating well! If you are visible (Black Sash women were) then you are not necessarily 'silent'. They were communicating. Silence is failing to communicate at all. I am not trying to split hairs here. I believe there is a difference.
Leslie, may I ask question. Are Quakers 'silent' or 'quiet'? I understood, perhaps mistakenly, that it was the latter.
I'll see if I can sort it out on my blog a bit later.

Meg Harper said...

Yes, Veronica, I'm aware of the work of Chaste and of 3 other actively campaigning bodies - Stop the Traffik, Jubilee Action and The Anti-Slavery Campaign. Any supporting flyers to support the silence could direct people to their work. Alternatively, it's been suggested to me that I should direct the silence, should it happen, towards a particular piece of legislation. I'm not thinking of just writers here, btw - so this silence wouldn't only be virtual - I want the whole world to do it really! I was just wondering about the way writers could do it. I love Penny's idea. Am currently toying with an all night silent vigil in local park but need to get the town council on my side which is difficult. Anyway - I'll let you all know if I get anywhere with this - another thing to stop me doing any writing!
Would be interested to hear what Leslie says about Quakers and silence/quiet. I thought it was silence myself.

catdownunder said...

I hope it is all right to ask here. Please tell me off it is not. I have put some untidy split cat hair type thoughts up on my blog about quiet and silence. I would really appreciate it if someone could point out the flaws in my logic.

Meg Harper said...

Seems fine to me to say this here! Have hot-footed it to you blog Cat and am now going off to think about what you said!

Anonymous said...

hello Meg, I would aim any action or protest against specific legislation, rather than just general awareness-raising. I don't agree that people trafficking is a neglected issue anymore. I think its almost the opposite - the western public is largely indifferent because they've heard/read too much about it and believe it doesn't affect them directly. One of my novels (sorry to drag in my own work) is about a child whose mother, it's implied, has been trafficked. When I first wrote it no one who read it picked up on that reference. Now, about five years later, it’s the first thing adult readers recognise and decide the story is about. I see the problem as less the lack of awareness than the kind of awareness and the stereotypes that a lot of campaigns and media coverage create of 'victims of trafficking'. I would like many of those who speak on behalf of people who've been trafficked to be silent for a bit, and let the people who've actually experienced it be heard.

More generally, I think if a coordinated silence on twitter/facebook etc. could be organised, it would be very effective at least in getting noticed. Most journalists these days look straight to twitter to find out what’s hot to write about and where to go for quotes and sources.

However, positive change regarding trafficking in my view requires major changes in immigration law, and we all know how popular that would be…

Meg Harper said...

Just getting really excited about Penny's silent writers idea!!! I wonder how you organise these things? Hmmm...

catdownunder said...

Penny I like your idea too - although I would call it 'speaking' in an alternative way.

Meg Harper said...

Hi Rambutanchik,

That's my point - here (Warwick!) people think it doesn't affect them - and yes, it's the immigration laws that need to change. So thank you for that - very useful to know you think it's the legislation that needs targeting. Perhaps we need to create a silence in which victims can be heard? However, the girls who researched the play I saw found a great deal of ignorance as well as indifference in the general public - maybe it depends which part of the country you're in?

catdownunder said...

Should we be creating not a silence but a space? Nick (who has some wonderful things to say about cat communication!) created a space in his post. For me that is not silent it speaks.
Thanks for your contribution to my space Meg. It gave me more to think about.

Anonymous said...

(AKA ramutanchik). I could rant about people trafficking for hours but this probably isn't the place... Maybe it's just because I'm so aware of it, i think everyone else is. But judging by the reaction to my book, it is certainly much more in the public awareness than six or seven years ago.

I'm inclined to think that any campaign is more effective if it has a definite goal - 'this is what can be done' rather than 'this is the situation and isn't it terrible'