Speech, monuments, and the legacy of silence

While there is an extensive literature on campus speech codes and their increasingly coercive impact (see for example Greg Lukianoff, Freedom from Speech) on classroom behavior by faculty and students, private conversations, and the selection or dis-invitation of controversial campus speakers, the analysis has tended to focus on the politics of speech and freedom of speech and not on why speech has become so dangerous and controlled.  The current controversies over Confederate monuments and their consequences seems linked to this in various ways.  I have nothing of particular interest to say about these topics directly.

These issues brought to mind the work of my late, lamented friend and colleague, the Israeli sociologist and therapist Dan Bar-On.  The author of many interesting books, Dan was a refugee who family fled Germany to Israel.  In his therapeutic practice, he found many children of Holocaust survivors who were deeply troubled by the silence of their parents or families about what had happened. He concluded that the silence itself prevented them from working through these issues and traumatized many.  After a time, he became curious about the children of the Nazi perpetrators and eventually went to Germany to meet some of them. He found they were suffering similar traumas brought on both by silence and shame.  His book about this is called The Legacy of Silence: Encounters with Children of the Third Reich.  Eventually he brought a group of the survivor’s children and the perpetrator’s children together to share their experiences on the basis that “working through” these issues was their only way forward. Later Dan found that the legacy of silence affected even the grandchildren’s generation.

This raises both an ethnographic and pedagogical issue for me. Are we “working through” these issues  or are we reproducing the trauma of slavery and genocide by silencing them.  What has anthropology to say about silence, taboo, and social healing?  When is silence and taboo socially valuable and when is it destructive? How can we be relevant to the current scene based on lessons we have learned from our fieldwork and ethnographic analyses?

2 thoughts on “Speech, monuments, and the legacy of silence”

  1. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Davydd; I like the idea of applying a broader range of anthropological expertise on trauma and dispossession to the ongoing questions about the legacy of slavery. It seems to me that you are drawing somewhat on your PAR experience as well when you advocate trying to start dialogue among groups who are radically in conflict with each other. And certainly, as the last few weeks demonstrate, there are major resonances between the Confederate and neo-Nazi “heritage projects” in the United States (if one can call them that).

    The politics of Holocaust remembrance in Germany seem really different from the politics of the legacy of slavery in the United States, though, and I also find it hard to think about the issues strictly through the lens of trauma and culture, if that entails leaving aside questions of economic justice and wealth redistribution. For one thing, there was actually a project of economic restitution and compensation for German Jews — contrast that with the extreme hostility towards any modern reparations for slavery…

  2. I agree that the trauma discourse has a way of taking over all of the space for distinctions. It is interesting to think about the sheer scope of reparations for slavery and genocide in the US. In addition to the clear continuation of the racism involved in slavery and genocide, the dollar amounts of even modest restitution would be incalculable. This does make your case that the situations are different and cannot easily be subsumed under one rubric.

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