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Silencing of the Lambs

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

Generations of children grew up being told that they should only speak when they are spoken to. What effect did this have on them as adults when they needed to express an opinion?

Does this sound familiar?

“Children should be seen and not heard.” “Speak when you are spoken to.” “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Some of us grew with these words ringing in our ears. It was a very effective way of maintaining discipline. Weren't children, after all, too young to have an opinion, know their own minds, or have an intelligent contribution to adult conversation?

In the predominantly British culture we were brought up in, we were expected to observe the niceties of "polite" conversation and respond appropriately when adults spoke to us. The social graces dictated the rules of engagement. That meant, in company, that we were clean, nicely dressed, and on our best behaviour.

In the primary school classrooms of South Africa in the 60s and 70s, the rules of conduct were clear. No talking in class unless the teacher asked a question, we'd raised our hands, and we were called upon to give an answer. If the answer was right, we usually received a positive acknowledgement or even praise. If the answer was wrong, the way the teacher responded could determine whether a child felt brave enough to raise a hand again.

In the age of corporal punishment, verbal missteps resulted in anything from getting one's mouth washed with soap to getting a sharp rap with a ruler, or worse. The sharp sting coming down on a tender hand was a strong deterrent, as was the fear of literally foaming at the mouth!

As we reached the end of our schooling, some of our highschool teachers encouraged dialogue. Listened to our contributions. Treated us as if we had something valuable to say. Our art teacher created an oasis of creativity where self-expression wasn't only allowed, it was encouraged.

Debates were fertile ground for the verbal thrust and parry of stating your case convincingly and backing it up with facts. This was the playing ground of those quick thinkers who could conjure up an argument on the fly.

Not all schools were made equal. Some, like ours, were far stricter than others. I often wonder how many remained silent when they had something to say, out of fear of being laughed at or being wrong. Their hands remained down. The kids who couldn't find their voices in class ended up retreating into a book, doodling, or simply watching the minutes tick by until the end of class. They may have been seen, but they weren't heard.

While school played a huge role in shaping our ability to express ourselves verbally, so too did our home lives. If we were lucky, it was a safe space in which we could speak freely, and where we could feel that we were both seen and heard. Not everyone had that experience. Some grew up in homes where feelings weren't talked about. One just got on with the business of living. It was my father, a forward-thinking man, who urged me to speak up, even when my opinion might be going against the tide or unpopular. He was less than pleased when I parroted opinions that I’d heard without stopping to question their validity. He expected me to have an opinion of my own, even if it was hard.

I soon learned the price of saying what I thought, especially when it wasn’t the generally held narrative. Having given voice in class to a political opinion that wasn’t the flavor of the month or even year, I learned that words, once spoken, cannot be rewound and deleted. They hang there, heavy in the air, as everyone in the room is suddenly still and appears to have stopped breathing.

While being muzzled never sat well with me, that experience showed me that I wasn’t ready for the repercussions of speaking my mind either. But at university, that all changed. We were expected to have intelligent, well-researched opinions. It was OK to disagree. Actually, it was encouraged, as long as you could back it up.

Fast forward to 2022 and it’s a very different world. On social media, people often make full use of their right to freedom of speech. “No filter” is commonly used to describe people saying things without giving a thought to the possible consequences.

This generation of children are stating their opinions soon after they learn to swipe. For better or worse, the old dictum, “If you don’t have anything nice to say…” has gone out of the proverbial window. More than once, I've found myself thinking, "We've gone from freedom of speech to a free-for-all."

Anyone who’s posted something on a major channel and buckled under the backlash of negative comments will know how a post can boomerang — resulting in a verbal volley of abuse, a torrent of input that can be overwhelming in its breadth, depth, and ferocity.

Words are powerful. What we choose to say (as much as what we choose not to say) has a far greater impact than we may realize. “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can break your heart,” said Robert Fulghum.

But there’s also a price to remaining silent. Not rocking the boat. Avoiding conflict at all costs. Shoving down one’s thoughts and emotions and bottling them up for decades can cause inestimable harm. Many reach middle age before they give themselves permission to say what’s on their mind — usually because they've found a safe space in which they can finally unburden the truth of their hearts.

Somewhere, there’s a balance between deciding when to speak up and when to keep silent. For those who are still self-censoring — out of habit, out of fear, out of an unwillingness to pay the price for doling out a much-needed dose of honesty — it may be time to look at the ingrained beliefs and habits from childhood when they needed permission to speak and ask themselves if it’s time to let their voices be heard.

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