When Does Silence Speak Louder Than Words?

by Tracy Blanchard


I am a trained mediator. I’ve studied Non-Violent Communication (NVC). I’m training to be a spiritual director. I work as the Administrator at the Negotiation & Mediation Clinic at Harvard Law School with a team of people who think creatively and deeply about things like active listening and understanding the motivations of others in conflict and facilitating dialogue. They practice and teach these skills to a new generation of lawyers, many of whom I hope will bring these skills into local, state, and federal government in the near future. I am neither a lawyer nor a professor, but I too am trained. Trained to hold space for others to be heard. That’s what I do.

But with all my training, I’m at a loss. This coming Saturday the alt-right is planning a rally on the Boston Common and every fiber of my being says that I cannot hold space for hate to be heard. For racism and misogyny and homophobia and anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia and downright hate. After the election I wanted to try to understand why so many people voted for Donald Trump. I wanted to try to keep my mind open, to understand what fears and concerns were motivating them. But in this moment, I don’t want to hear it. This is not the moment for listening.

My colleague Adriel Borshansky wrote a moving piece about his trip to Buchenwald this summer. He points out that conflict resolution practitioners work by a motto to “stay curious,” to “suspend judgment,” to “challenge our own embedded assumptions” about what the other might be thinking and feeling. In the words of Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of NVC, we try to hear and understand the “unmet needs” behind challenging words and actions. But, Adriel asks, what do you do when being curious goes against your own values, because what the other is espousing is so heinous, so destructive, so hate-filled, that you just can’t stomach it? What do you do when listening feels disloyal—to yourself, to your community, to every value you hold dear?

I often wonder how the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King did it? His burden, the burden of his people, is so much greater than what I’ve experienced. How did he protest in love? Because come Saturday, protest I must. In this moment, holding space and listening feels way too much like silence. I cannot, I will not, be a party-through-silence to another Holocaust. I cannot, I will not, be a party-through-silence to another Jim Crow era, if indeed that ever ended. I cannot, I will not, be a party-through-silence to another Orlando. As a heteronormative, cisgendered, economically stable, white person, my silence contributes loudly to the –isms and -phobias currently tearing our country apart. As one of my colleagues said at our staff meeting this week, there are places of dialogue and there are places of protest. They are not the same places and we shouldn’t try to make them the same. Dialogue is something you do one-on-one or in your communities and Town Halls. But a hate rally in the middle of my city? That’s a place of protest.

In my training I’ve read a lot about how humans react to conflict, biologically and neurologically speaking. When we’ve been triggered by someone, or they triggered by us, we don’t hear each other anymore. We can’t engage. We close down, and if the trigger gets too intense, we end up screaming, or worse. Because at the core of it, our identity is being threatened. In the classroom we call this an “identity quake.” If we have any hope for progress, we need to recognize when others have been triggered and can’t hear us, as well as recognize when we’ve been triggered, when we are no longer present. When we are no longer able to have a conversation with someone that allows them to be anything other than the embodiment of Evil. And we Evil to them in return.

I want to remember this should I come face to face with a self-proclaimed Nazi on Saturday? I want to use my knowledge about dialogue and conflict resolution to make my protest a spiritual practice, in the tradition of Dr. King and the Standing Rock water protectors. I want to stay grounded and focused and react not from a place of trigger, but a place of confidence and strength that I’m standing on the side of love and doing my part to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. How, in the moment of trigger, do I stay connected to my values? Especially when some piece of my trigger is my own white privilege.

I’m protesting Saturday, and I’m not ready to give up on dialogue. I’ve begun to see a lot of articles calling for an end to any talk of giving hate a “listening ear”. A big part of me is there too. And living within the messiness that is my human self, there is also the part of me that still has faith. I’ve seen the power of talking it out. Megan Phelps-Roper, formerly of Westboro Baptist Church, and Christian Picciolini, formerly of the Chicago Area Skinheads, are living proof. The work that lays before me is one of timing and tools. Both dialogue and demonstration are implements in the tool kit of change. And each in itself is not equally effective or morally robust enough for every situation. But nor are they mutually exclusive. I must pursue each with vigor, in its right place and its right time. There are so many influences that contribute to someone turning towards hate. I must use all the tools in my kit to help turn us toward peace.

Tracy Blanchard is the Clinic Administrator for HNMCP.
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