THERE IS A LANGUAGE older by far and deeper than words. It is the language of bodies, of body on body, wind on snow, rain on trees, wave on stone. It is the language of dream, gesture, symbol, memory. We have forgotten this language. We do not even remember that it exists.
In order for us to maintain our way of living, we must, in a broad sense, tell lies to each other, and especially to ourselves. It is not necessary that the lies be particularly believable. The lies act as barriers to truth. These barriers to truth are necessary because without them many deplorable acts would become impossibilities. Truth must at all costs be avoided. When we do allow self-evident truths to percolate past our defenses and into our consciousness, they are treated like so many hand grenades rolling across the dance floor of an improbably macabre party. We try to stay out of harm’s way, afraid they will go off, shatter our delusions, and leave us exposed to what we have done to the world and to ourselves, exposed as the hollow people we have become. And so we avoid these truths, these self-evident truths, and continue the dance of world destruction.
As is true for most children, when I was young I heard the world speak. Stars sang. Stones had preferences. Trees had bad days. Toads held lively discussions, crowed over a good day’s catch. Like static on a radio, schooling and other forms of socialization began to interfere with my perception of the animate world, and for a number of years I almost believed that only humans spoke. The gap between what I experienced and what I almost believed confused me deeply. It wasn’t until later that I began to understand the personal, political, social, ecological, and economic implications of living in a silenced world.
This silencing is central to the workings of our culture. The staunch refusal to hear the voices of those we exploit is crucial to our domination of them. Religion, science, philosophy, politics, education, psychology, medicine, literature, linguistics, and art have all been pressed into service as tools to rationalize the silencing and degradation of women, children, other races, other cultures, the natural world and its members, our emotions, our consciences, our experiences, and our cultural and personal histories.
My own introduction to this silencing--and this is similarly true for a great percentage of children as well within many families--came at the hands (and genitals) of my father, who beat my mother, my brothers, and my sisters, and who raped my mother, my sister, and me . . ..
We became a family of amnesiacs. There’s no place in the mind to sufficiently contain these experiences, and as there was effectively no way out, it would have served no purpose for us to consciously remember the atrocities. So we learned, day after day, that we could not trust our perceptions, and that we were better off not listening to our emotions. Daily we forgot, and if a memory pushed its way to the surface we forgot again. There’d be a beating, followed by brief contrition and my father asking, "Why did you make me do it?" And then? Nothing, save the inconvenient evidence: a broken door, urine-soaked underwear, a wooden room divider my brother repeatedly tore from the wall trying to pick up speed around the corner. Once these were fixed, there was nothing left to remember. So we "forgot," and the pattern continued.
This willingness to forget is the essence of silencing. When I realized that, I began to pay more attention to the "how" and the "why" of forgetting--and thus began a journey back to remembering.
What else do we forget? Do we think about nuclear devastation, or the wisdom of producing tons of plutonium, which is lethal even in microscopic doses for well over 250,000 years? Does global warming invade our dreams? In our most serious moments do we consider that industrial civilization has initiated the greatest mass extinction in the history of the planet? How often do we consider that our culture commits genocide against every indigenous culture it encounters? As one consumes the products manufactured by our culture, is s/he concerned about the atrocities that make them possible?
We don’t stop these atrocities, because we don’t talk about them. We don’t talk about them, because we don’t think about them. We don’t think about them, because they’re too horrific to comprehend. As trauma expert Judith Herman writes, "The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable."
As the ecological fabric of the natural world unravels around us, perhaps it is time that we begin to speak of the unspeakable, and to listen to that which we have deemed unhearable.
A grenade rolls across the floor. Look. It won’t go away.