Silence of the good people

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I’ve had a viral infection for nearly three weeks which at times stopped me speaking and singing. I’m better now but it’s made me think about voice, how it feels when your expression is repressed and how it feels to be told to shut up. We heard that two children have been banned by law from ever talking about fracking, so that their family could escape the terrible effects on their farm and their health. We heard that Government has told planners and MPs to ignore protests against fracking. Women were bombarded with rape and bomb threats on Twitter for speaking out about equalities and abuse.

What most interests me are the more culturally insidious criticisms of expressions of feelings and ideas, by people who uphold rationality and liberal values. For example, there were many critical comments of people choosing to hold a ‘Twitter silence’ in support of those suffering the above-mentioned abuse, telling them that being quiet is letting the bullies win. (Surely free speech is about choosing when to be silent as much as when and what to say?)

Paul Kingsnorth* has written an essay called Forty Days about withdrawal from a certain kind of activism and retreat into the wilderness. He reflects back on a controversial essay called Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, and better articulates what he meant by it. He describes the barrage of criticism that was effectively telling him to shut up: “If I wanted to ‘withdraw’, I was told, that was fine: I could go off and be depressed in the corner, but I had no right to tell other people about it. I needed to shut up and let the activists get on with their work of Saving The World.”  The implication is that anyone who writes or speaks authoritatively or definitely, and who receives some attention for doing so, is dangerous. Their words will have a corrosive, or even plague-like effect. (If only…It takes the resources of an oil company to have that kind of effect.)

This rang bells with me. I’ve not talked much about withdrawing and I haven’t done the doomster thing and run away to build an earthship (although it occurs to me it might have been sensible when I see this news about climate change). However, I have talked about the need to discuss facts about the environmental crisis and to allow demotic expression of our feelings about this crisis. I think people need to engage with a combination of challenging truths and therapeutic connective creativity to be peaceful and productive in its face. A significant issue we need to deal with is constructive denial, avoiding the negatives of a real situation in order to appear and think yourself into a positive state.

Very few people approve of the truth element of my approach. I’m often told in response that it is not safe to address the impending disaster, that I’m helping to propagate false ‘disaster memes’, likely to induce either panic or hedonism, that psychological evidence proves that people will just switch off and do nothing, that children and vulnerable people shouldn’t hear these things…

As if my words have any influence. Actually, although I’d quite like to feel more encouraged to speak about these things, what I really want to see is broadcasters and influential individuals addressing these facts and feelings more fully, encouraging wider debate in society.

When we heard news that there was open water at the North Pole, I noticed that when people shared such links they rarely commented on them and there was no ensuing discussion. Almost the only commentary was from a few paid journalists. I asked why people thought this was the case. Nobody denied the truth of what I’d observed. People said they felt powerless, that talking about it would achieve nothing. Others said that such stories are too overwhelming and perhaps stop people taking action, so it isn’t good to talk about it.

What seems missing all around is an allowance of talking about feelings, and also a more philosophical public discourse – making tentative expressions and considering the intractability of the situation. This might be a cultural response, as most of the people and media I connect with are British (and mostly English in fact). I’m intrigued to know if other cultures are more expressive and philosophical in public discourse about the environmental crisis. Also, I wonder how much literature has not been published because it deals too directly with this emerging reality?

I just don’t buy the idea that there is one class of people who can manage messages (to ensure that they are comforting, effective, inspiring) and another class of people who are switched on and off by them. In fact, I don’t believe that messages should be the dominant mode of public communication. I prefer conversations and enquiries.

I suspect that many of the ‘constructive denial’ and repression memes come from the USA. There has been recent debate in the UK about whether or not scientists should get involved in environmental politics, which has surely been stimulated by heavy conservative censure of politicising scientists in the US. Tamsin Edwards has spoken in a way that many will find convincing about why climate scientists should not advocate particular solutions. I agree there may be situations and types of study that benefit from neutrality, and climate science is absolutely fraught, but I strongly believe that individual intellectuals must be free to speak, campaign and advocate solutions, whether within or outside their research projects. Many scientific disciplines, including social sciences, are strongly connected to political and social decision-making, and would be much less valid if they were not. (In fact, as Joe Brewer argues, the social sciences would benefit from being much more strongly applied to social change.)

The blame for speaking about solutions should not be pointed at scientists but at our undemocratic political system and our biased media. What if politicians can be seen as mediators for the demos to speak even more freely, to make decisions in a more participatory democracy? What if education could be seen as a preparation for this kind of citizenship? Rather than being adherents to a party line*, politicians should embrace both science and public feeling more wholeheartedly. Their role should be to ask the right questions of data and researchers, to ensure that it is rigorously communicated by the media, to involve researchers in scoping solutions that take account of human and non-human needs, and to enable the people to collaboratively make informed decisions.

* Paul is co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project. I’ll be participating in its Uncivilisation Festival next week, running a workshop about my Beuysterous project and what we can learn from mychorrizae. I should also make clear that Paul doesn’t advocate running away and building earthships  – read his essay to see what he is saying.

*Cull badgers despite scientific evidence that it won’t reduce TB. Licence fracking because despite lack of evidence about its risks it is likely to generate a quick buck. And so on.

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