No. A simple word. Comprising a single syllable and easy to enunciate, it is powerful despite its simplicity; its very articulation demands negation. Yet, its meaning, what it stresses in the act of its articulation, is often obfuscated by the power dynamics between who’s saying it and to whom. Unfortunately this authority paradigm often inhibits the ability of an individual to pronounce the word, and in the absence of its expression, space for the gross misconstruing of circumstances is created.
The incessant release of emails exchanged between Tarun Tejpal and the colleague accusing him of sexual assault, on social media sites has effectively demonstrated how relationships of power are wrought with issues of silence and misinterpretation.
I feel a bit chary in writing about the outcomes of the incident. In the time since she spoke up, the privacy of the young woman at the midst of this controversy has been violated inordinately. She’s been called a political stooge, her motives have been questioned, the veracity of her account doubted, yet, going by the correspondence available in the public domain, she has stuck to her guns. I write this from the premise of faith in her account, and in the belief that there are many other women who find resonance in her predicament. I am also aware of Tejpal’s roles outside that of an editor, as a father, a friend, and, now more precariously, as an exemplar of journalistic ethics. However, the incident, in its particularity, is reflective of a deep-rooted and larger issue, one that demands unfettering.
In the unofficial apology to his colleague, Tejpal refers to the ‘heavily loaded’ context of their conversation, prior to the alleged misdemeanor. He calls it playful and flirtatious, one that alluded to sex and the ‘near-impossibility’ of fidelity. Perhaps the substance of their dialogue fell outside the domain of the usual senior-subordinate conversation. Perhaps it fell outside the boundaries of a customary exchange between a parent figure and a young adult, or out of the ordinary for a certain kind of friendship. It may have been one of these circumstances, or all of them. Yet, for many women, including myself, these are situations that are easily identified. Each of them is an instance where the changing tenor of the exchange from genuine intellectual engagement to awkward allusion is palpable. The feeling of not knowing what to do is strong, for fear of the ramifications.
How does one tell a parent’s friend that his knowledge of the availability of sex-for-sale in certain countries is of no relevance to the conversation you initiated regarding cultural exchange? How do you tell a dear friend’s husband that caressing your hand while conversing in the dark about his admiration for you is extraordinarily uncomfortable? How do you ensure that they understand your silence is engendered by fear of destroying relationships and not tacit approval to continue? How do you explain to these individuals that the regard you hold them in is deferential or platonic or affectionate; that your ability to converse with them about matters of sexuality or fidelity stems from viewing them as your equal, from your admiration of their intellect, and their choice to eschew bigotry and small-mindedness; that your intent is neither an illicit desire to engage in a ‘heavily loaded’ conversation with them, nor a masked appeal for a ‘sexual liaison.’ How do you ensure that by saying yes to the conversation, you are not saying yes to the implication?
You do it by saying no. By enunciating the word. By speaking it out loud. By disregarding the fear of rocking the boat with the same ease that the person in front of you has demonstrated through his own actions. By voicing your disagreement and hoping that in articulating dissent you make it tangible, make it fearsome, make it strong. Audre Lorde, the black, lesbian, feminist poet, and author of The Cancer Journals, her poignant memoir on being diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing a mastectomy, enunciates her desire to speak up because “[Her] silences had not protected [her]” and with the belief that “Your silence will not protect you.” My silences have not shielded me. I’m going to be un-silent, I’m going to say no.
© Ayesha Sindhu 2013