The Wrong Kind of Silence

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We simply can’t always speak out. But there are critical times within Friends’ communities when failing to speak truth can cause great damage. Trying not to offend, trying to maintain a surface calm, can cause a disastrous loss of trust and can betray our commitment to answering the Light in everyone. Often it enables cruel behavior to continue. When problems remain unnamed, it can threaten our ability to address them. This kind of silence can undermine integrity, cause profound personal hurt, and splinter community. Much is lost when we fail to say what we think and when we fail to help each other speak up when serious interpersonal issues develop. Therefore I want to name self-silencing of truth as a significant threat to the ability of Friends to live our testimonies and a threat to the Religious Society of Friends.

I became deeply immersed in issues around truth telling when I became a pioneer in the hospice movement. Hospice nurses must develop the ability to see the final stage of life for what it is, rather than avoiding the truth by insisting that everyone is treatable. They develop the courage to speak openly about the unspeakable with patients and families, to help them determine the rest of their lives. Grounded in my hospice experience, I have tried to understand the avoidance of truth in other circumstances and to consider ways to overcome it.

Certainly failing to speak truth is a widespread human coping style. It allows us to live every day without constantly stirring up “bad feelings.” Harvard business professor Chris Argyris has studied how organizations learn and change. In times of fear and uncertainty, Argyris says, organizations typically seek surface calm rather than truth. He describes a conspiracy of silence developing around worrisome issues, which he calls “undiscussables.” Generic organizational defense mechanisms in stressful times include moral blindness, distrust, backbiting, scapegoating, and rejecting whistle blowers. Argyris explains that these behaviors and the denial of underlying problems will result in severe organizational pathology unless leaders work together to create a more resilient culture in which people can trust each other enough to speak the truth.

Beyond covert “don’t speak” rules and the resulting defensive behaviors described by Argyris, bullying behavior can also contribute to silencing. Bullies are members of the organization who abuse their power with an assortment of disrespectful behaviors, obvious or subtle, including: refusing to speak to an individual, persistent criticism, raising one’s voice, social isolation, gossip that persistently denigrates another, refusing to answer questions, and belittling another person’s capabilities. In his book, People of the Lie, Morgan Scott Peck describes the sense of moral authority that bullies can project as they intensely desire to appear good, while scapegoating others.  I have witnessed all of these behaviors in my personal, professional, and Quaker life.

From the fields of nursing, medicine, and science, I could give countless examples to illustrate the dangers of failing to speak. The most extreme example from the recent past is now well documented. Nurses in the Nazi era, nearly all graduates of Christian nursing schools, intentionally killed over 10,000 children and adults who had physical and mental disabilities. Following the deceptions of the time that disabled people were living a “Life Unworthy of Living,” these nurses starved “useless eaters,” administered poison pills and lethal injections, and ushered some who trusted them to gas chambers. Interviews half a century later revealed that these actions were not taken due to fear of retribution. The complicit nurses had simply come to believe in the Nazi cause, adopted the official state beliefs, and obeyed the orders of superiors.

Over half a century later, in 2005, the American Association of Critical Care Nurses published their study, “Silence Kills.”  Based on surveys and interviews of 1700 nurses and physicians, the study revealed that many medical practitioners feel incapable of raising crucial concerns about behaviors that put patients at risk of harm, many of them witness errors that endanger patients and remain silent. One in five physicians had seen patients injured as a result of errors they witnessed, but they did not speak out. Only 10% of respondents reported that they generally spoke up when they witnessed errors. This outspoken minority also reported being happier in their work and their patients had measurably better outcomes.

Many readers are familiar with Stanley Milgram’s psychological experiments in the 1960s when ordinary people in a “learning experiment” were told to administer escalating electric shocks to unseen subjects (enacted by the scientists) who screamed in anguish and asked for the experiment to stop. They did not know that the shocks were a sham and no one was actually being hurt. Only a small minority refused to continue “shocking” the experimental subjects. Most chose to obey authority rather than their own moral convictions. Little is known about the compassionate minority, but studies indicate that developmental experiences of self-worth, emotional security, and a perception of safety are precursors to compassionate courage.

As a nurse and professor of nursing, I have witnessed innumerable cover-ups over the years. I have taught nursing students to speak on behalf of vulnerable patients. However, I have witnessed the forces that silence them and lead to complicity in unethical situations. Hesitance to speak out, even in life-threatening circumstances, seems endemic within the human community.

American Quakers live in this society afflicted by widespread deception, and live in the face of perpetual war, environmental degradation, growing poverty, and loss of democracy. Denial has become a global pandemic and is having devastating effects on trust and the quality of societal life. It feels like things are falling apart. Given this context, how can Friends come together to speak about our fears instead of pretending together that things aren’t so bad? There is power in shared acknowledgement of pain. Without it, peace is an illusion.

Only-too-aware of upheavals in society at large, I have watched Friends smooth over troubles within Quaker meetings and Quaker organizations to create an illusory peacefulness. As vulnerable human beings, we avoid speaking about the “undiscussables.” We can’t face being put down, being accused of being judgmental, being scapegoated, being discredited, being isolated. Friends Meetings are havens for people hurting from the pain in the world, weary of societal misbehavior, seeking authenticity, hoping for spiritual development, and drawn to our insistence that Spirit dwells in the heart of all people. It is a tragic contradiction therefore to be silenced by Friends.

When no one says a word about the misbehavior of weighty Quakers, we participate in a culture of collusion with Quaker bullies who proclaim justice while abusing their power. I was disheartened twelve years ago in an AFSC regional executive committee that was disrupted by accusations and division. Our new program director fired or forced the resignation, one-by-one, of our program’s exceptional staff, creating an escalating culture of mistrust and abuse. Tragically, too many on the executive committee trusted this bully and disbelieved the refuting stories told by proven peace advocates. As a whole, the committee turned away from its great-hearted staff and the moral convictions of some of its own members. To quote a member with heavy heart who did exit interviews with departing staff, “What good is it to work for peace and justice when the people who work here do not experience peace and justice in their workplace?”

I have heard many other Quaker stories of self-silencing and bullying. Some Friends dominate Meeting for Worship for Business so badly that new Friends, especially young Friends, soon go elsewhere. I know about a meeting where Friends did nothing when an influential older Quaker pursued the teen daughter of a family attending the meeting, until the family finally left. When a beloved Friend becomes demented and viciously abusive, Friends remain silent and meeting membership dwindles. I am familiar with a sizable meeting that owns slum housing, and no one will confront the formidable elder controlling it. In one meeting, the value of membership in the Society of Friends is loudly and repeatedly derided as snobby and exclusive, but no weighty Quaker seems willing to speak out to disagree, and the rant continues. When a long-time Friend is nominated for leadership and then quietly excluded by an intimidating elder, no one challenges. These kinds of deceits are heart breaking and immobilizing. They turn our testimony of integrity to dust.

We have the best intentions. First let’s acknowledge that the skills of interpersonal nonviolence do not come inherently to anyone, not even to committed Friends. Despite our deep commitment to peace in the world, knowing how to enact peace in our everyday lives can be challenging. Fundamentally, there are the realities of nature and nurture – our genetic predispositions and how we grew up. Emotional disorders and oppressive family experiences can leave an adult fearful and speechless. Many of us, particularly women and some people outside mainstream American culture, have been socialized to doubt ourselves and to stay quiet. Sometimes cultural rules for behavior mandate harmony over speaking out. Given our very human vulnerabilities, when serious problems require speaking out to disrupt superficial goodwill, we need to help each other find the strength to speak truth in a way that can be heard. I wish I had a formula for developing Friendly courage. I do know that first of all, we must have the courage to name a problem. Nothing can be done about a problem that we do not admit exists.

Where language and naming are power, Silence is oppression, is violence. –Adriene Rich

To address individual habits of self-silencing, Friends must ask questions to help difficult truths to be spoken. Careful, sensitive questions can help Friends name and explore unresolved issues that have been smoothed over and covered up. I am reminded that a central strategy of hospice nurses is to devise questions that help people to speak hard truths. These queries encourage people to talk about the unspeakable. Speaking truth opens people up to being able to make end-of-life choices without being coerced by the expectation of others.

Also using sensitive questioning, the Center for Courage and Renewal (Parker Palmer and colleagues) has developed a model for a creating a safe space wherein truth can be spoken. The Circle of Trust is grounded in the principles that guide Friends’ clearness committees. Circles of kindred souls listen in an environment so safe that hard truths can be acknowledged. Open questions encourage the “inner teacher” to emerge without telling people what to do.

The possibility of abuse of power is everywhere, yet readily denied with kindhearted cover-ups: “It’s not that bad. She doesn’t mean to upset anyone. He’s a good person. That’s just his way.” An entire organization or Meeting community could use Circle of Caring guidelines for listening through these cover-ups. Growing from self-silencing to speaking up can happen when we are heard. The challenge is devising a tender way to wordsmith queries that acknowledge the misuse of power. As I propose possible queries, I realize how threatening the subject can be:

  • Do you hesitate to speak when difficulties arise? What experiences have you had?
  • Are their concerns in our meeting/organization that are unmentionable and need to be spoken?
  • What could be done within our meeting (or organization) to promote healthy truth-telling in ways that are consistent with our testimonies?
  • Might we participate in training to enhance our ability to enact everyday peace in our lives among Friends?

Individual Friends need each other’s help to recognize bullying behavior. We cannot do it alone. We need each other to grow in understanding that this damaging behavior is painful, intimidating, and disruptive of community. There is nothing more heartbreaking than feeling alone with an emerging awareness of a bullying pattern; we need to stand beside each other. A bully culture is sustained as long as the wrong kind of silence is tolerated.

When threatening behavior is recognized and acknowledged, several approaches are helpful in confronting it. In the face of Quaker bullying, a “wait a minute” response permits time to consider how to proceed. Calling for silence is always powerful and should be used freely in response to blaming, anger, and other disruptive behaviors.

A few websites that can help guide a Friends community in developing strategies to confront bullying and self-silencing are these: www.workplacebullying.org, www.bullyonline.org, www.nwcompass.org, and www.couragerenewal.org.

Friends’ communities can study these resources to gain insight as they talk with each other to diagnose problems, journal to grow in understanding and sometimes to document behavior, and develop responses to predictable bullying behavior. Practicing verbal responses to predictable behavior can be very helpful to guide a response the next time it occurs. Bullies have a tendency to play people against each other. Help each other by rehearsing the best words for responses before they are needed.

The challenge of speaking words that can be heard is significant. One framework for doing this is the practice of Compassionate Communication (Nonviolent Communication or NVC, New Compass website above) as developed by Marshall Rosenberg and associates. NVC written and audiovisual materials, as well as workshops, teach methods of using language that is not alienating. The four-step NVC model incudes: stating an observation that is as nonjudgmental as possible, expressing our own feelings, expressing our own needs, and then requesting a change from another person, using non-demanding language that does not elicit a defensive response. Training in any well-respected model for mediation or conflict resolution would be of immense value in promoting the speaking of truth among Friends.

In conclusion, difficulties speaking and hearing truth seem to be endemic to the human condition, and Friends are not immune. I recommend sensitively fashioned queries, frankly confronting disruptive behaviors, and strengthening our community capacity to speak our minds in response to difficulties that are not being addressed. We can rehearse our words with each other. For me, the most fundamental challenge is to live our testimonies among ourselves. I believe we can do better. In all efforts, we need to “cover each other’s backs.” Let us stand together to risk living in peace with each other. ~~~

Joyce Zerwekh has been a Quaker for nearly forty years and is currently a member of Multnomah Friends Meeting.  She was a pioneer in the hospice movement and has taught at several schools of nursing around the country.