We’re literally engulfed in noise in the world. The noise around us is constant, continuous, and relentless. And it’s difficult to escape it, no matter how hard we try. We’re bombarded with sound from our TVs, our smart phones, and our music platforms. We hear the clamor of movies, concerts, sporting events, and boisterous conversations in our local pubs and restaurants. There’s noise in the streets from traffic, horns, sputtering engines, and expansive in-car stereo systems. In truth, noise is ever-present in our lives. And things are only getting louder by the day.
Now, to be sure, sound is critical to our ‘being’. Hearing is one of our human senses. But too much is too much. Research and common sense tell us that increasing noise pollution harms our human health, jeopardizes animal habitat and species, creates hearing loss in our ears, stresses us even further, drowns our conversations out, and existentially separates us from each other in many ways. Noise can even be ‘weaponized’, as we recently learned in news stories about Cuba. This happened when numerous U.S. citizens and personnel stationed there complained of significant health problems associated with alleged ‘sonic attacks’. In the end, then, noise pollution is all quite sinister, whether we do it to ourselves or someone else does it to us. In fact, our constant need for noise is bad for us spiritually. Conversely, silence is actually helpful, contemplative, soul rejuvenating, and sacred in many respects. As such, we need to be far more purposeful about creating silent spaces in our lives each day. Even pray more meditatively, versus our ongoing, often one-way monologue with God in our regular prayers.
So silence is good… Unless it’s Bad. Unless it’s wholly unsacred, hurtful, and soul crushing. Tragically, unspeakably, and unjustly, we’ve seen an abundance of ‘imposed’ silence these days. An enforced silencing of women, minorities, the poor, children, and even innocent bystanders. Countless recent news stories have reported repulsive instances of sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, and other predatory behaviors toward women by their male counterparts. It’s been happening in Hollywood, in the media, in sports, and in government. Everywhere, actually. Women have long been victims of gender inequality in the workplace—in areas such as pay, working conditions, advancement, and representation in management and on boards of directors. These new criminal sexual assaults only underscore the wholly unsacred silencing marginalization and victimization that women have faced for years. The courage of the victims in speaking out about these heinous crimes is nothing short of remarkable. Particularly in the face of the inevitable resistance, denials, rationalizations, and further abuse-enabling tactics that will undoubtedly ensue in response.
It’s not just about the attempted silencing of women, though. Abuse of innocent children by any number of predatory Catholic Priests isn’t ‘news’ anymore for those thoughtful enough to read even a little. This violent, criminal silencing never seems to go away either, as new revelations continue to surface on a regular basis. We know from research and the horrid stories of victims that the ‘survivors’ of this abuse face years (and perhaps lifetimes) of resultant PTSD, drug and alcohol dependency, dysfunctional relationships, and inability to maintain jobs and daily life functions. Too many victims grow into adulthood silently carrying these closely-held secret traumas, only to take their own lives in hopeless, despair-driven suicides. The despair of victims and their families is only heightened when their claims are met by such organizational muffling tactics as stonewalling, denials, cover-ups, lies, fighting of needed statute of limitations legislative changes, and payoffs to victims by the Catholic Church. All in the name of silencing their hurting, suffering voices in wholly unsacred, soul-killing ways. All in the name of ‘protecting the institution’ at all costs. Always… at the cost of the muted victims themselves.
The silencing of others is specific to many marginalized groups to be sure. But it happens to nearly all of us in our otherwise noisy society to one degree or another. Even, inexplicably and violently, to innocent bystanders. Even to those worshiping in church, as witnessed by the brutal, senseless, silencing-slaughter of those praying, singing ,and preaching in a small, tight-knit community near San Antonio in Texas last Sunday. Silenced by a man and a gun, determined to eradicate the voices of people of faith in this local Baptist church, be they men, women, or children. Persons who did nothing more than gathering in faith to raise their voices of praise, worship, prayer, and Word to God and to each other in the pews in which they sat. Equally worse, silenced by an ‘aiding and abetting’ government intent on blithely tweeting ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ rather than working on serious gun control legislation.
Much of the dialogue around our silencing of others, however subtle or outwardly violent and egregious, centers on notions of power. The imposed power of men over women. The imposed power of whites over minorities. Of adults over children. Of terror over peace. Of guns over non-violence and gun control. Of hierarchy. Of money. Of privilege. And so on. But while I concur that power is, on the surface, a contributing factor to our silencing of others, we miss the point when we focus on power as a root cause. Imposing ‘silence’ on another is undoubtedly fostered and facilitated by holding power over another. Without a doubt. But power is not at the center of wholly unsacred silence. Rather, it’s how we ‘see’ others in the orbit of our respective, living relationships. In other words, abuse of power is a symptom of a much deeper, existential problem: the systemic devaluing of others.
The tragic, ugly truth is that too many of us view others as simple commodities. Human commodities, but commodities nonetheless. By way of analogy, we see others as something akin to plastic bottles: single use, disposable containers that we drink from and then throw away. In other words, others are to be consumed from… then disposed of when no longer needed or of any further use to us. We also commoditize others, though, when we generalize about them as a class or sub-group without first seeing them as real and unique individuals. In effect, we label persons who we’ve bunched together in a ‘category’. Then we stereotype everyone like them as possessing common attributes, behaviors, and actions– irrespective of the make-up of each individual so grouped. When we do this, we actually silence each and every person in that group. Individuality is blurred and then written off in the stifling, muffling guise of furthering our ‘noble’ world views. In order to continuously reinforce, not challenge, our existing belief systems about others.
All this is wholly unsacred silence, indeed. Whether we do it ourselves to others or stand by in complicit silence when we see it happening. And we don’t get past the ‘commodity’ problem by merely ‘appreciating’ others more or by trying to superficially break down barriers. Or via buying into the notion of oversimplified inclusivity of ideas, values, backgrounds, talents, contexts, and diverse multiculturalism. The fallacy here is this: we think we’re opening ourselves to ‘hearing’ other voices, but we’re most often only going through the motions of it. Even if we’re partially hearing, we’re not truly listening. And when we don’t truly listen, we’re effectively silencing others. Even when we erroneously think we’re open-minded with ‘ears wide open’. In actuality, we’re still saying “Shh! Keep still, now! Silence!”
In the end, the only way to invite the sound of others into our lives is to fully engage them individually. Engage them holistically in their individual, inherent sacred humanity. To earnestly, honestly, and assiduously strive to see other human beings as unique, multi-layered, complex, and whole persons. Inherently sacred persons. Not to be used and then disposed of. Nor to be valued only for what they can bring to a problem, community, opportunity, or challenge. But as special individuals who are, each, loved and worthy by their very own natures. With a basic, unalterable, and powerfully overarching human right to live each moment of each day with God-given individual dignity. A dignity never to be silenced in any way, no matter the circumstance. Not ever.