By Todd Schoepflin
Silence and Denial in Everyday Life is the subtitle of a powerfully insightful book, The Elephant in the Room by sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel. I came across this gem a few years ago and it has since become one of my favorite books.
Surely you’ve heard the phrase “elephant in the room,” which refers to something obvious that is being ignored. It can be a problem or controversial issue that is overlooked for a variety of reasons, including embarrassment, shame, fear, or because the subject is taboo. As Zerubavel explains, silence is a practical way of avoiding painful or controversial issues, and so we might “look the other way” instead of confronting a problem or discussing a delicate matter.
But why else do people remain silent in the face of controversial issues? According to Zerubavel, one answer is norms about remaining silent or ignoring information. For example, think about sayings in our culture about keeping quiet like “Bite your tongue,” “Button your lip,” and “Silence is golden.”
Other sayings that tell us we shouldn’t seek out information: “Ignorance is bliss,” “What you don’t know won’t hurt you,” “Look the other way,” “Turn a blind eye.” There are also common expressions to discourage us from getting involved in matters that supposedly don’t involve us, like “Don’t rock the boat” and “Mind your own business.”
Zerubavel uses the example of the policy for gays and lesbians in the military that was enacted during Bill Clinton’s first term as President: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Not asking and not telling doesn’t mean there aren’t gays and lesbians serving in the military! It’s a perfect example of ignoring an obvious elephant in the room. As you may know, this policy was recently repealed.
Here’s a scenario as another example of an elephant in the room: Suppose three couples get together who’ve been good friends for many years. Two couples have happy and healthy children but the third couple has no children. It is evident from conversations over the years that the third couple wants to have children, but it is not exactly known why they don’t. Has there been a miscarriage? Can they not get pregnant? Would they consider adopting? As the two other couples’ children run around and laugh and play, tension hangs in the room. The absence of children for the third couple is a sensitive matter. What, if anything, should be said?
It is possible, Zerubavel suggests, that we learn to be quiet about serious things and to be tactful about trivial things. For instance, what do you do if a co-worker you don’t know very well has their fly open? Do you say anything? If an acquaintance has food stuck in their teeth, do you tell them?
Although these are trivial matters, there are norms about being tactful in handling (or ignoring) them. It might be the case that being polite about not so serious things teaches us to be polite about very serious things. This is not to say that anyone who ignores someone’s open zipper will automatically ignore a substantially serious matter; it is only to say that norms in non-serious situations may carry over to serious ones.
Think about all the times you’ve been told gossip and the conversation ends with a reminder like “This stays between us” and “This doesn’t leave the room.” Could it be that, in effect, we are trained to ignore things or keep our mouths shut when it comes to significant and serious problems? Do you feel like a good friend is drinking way too much lately but you don’t say anything? Are you concerned that another good friend is unsafe with regard to sexual activity but you mind your own business? Do you ignore signs that a family member is suffering from an eating disorder?
If so, are you subscribing to the notion that “Some things are better left unsaid”?
In cases like this we might feel like it’s not our place to get involved. But if it’s not our place, whose place is it? Is it possible that we’re too concerned with minimizing conflict and keeping social interaction smooth? I’m not suggesting we always open our mouths because, in reality, some things are better left unsaid. There are times when “loose lips sink ships.” But there are also times when things are better said. For instance, like this campaign says, drinking and driving should never be the elephant in the room.
In a very powerful point, Zerubavel reminds us that silence, in some cases, is consent. If we don’t say anything, we essentially condone improper behavior and the person responsible for it might view his or her actions as acceptable. He gives the example of a woman who pretends not to notice that her husband is molesting their daughter. As he says, her silence enables the abuse because it conveys approval. Zerubavel uses the phrase “conspiracy of silence” to describe this type of situation.
Silence prevents us from confronting (and consequently solving) problems and controversial issues. Breaking a conspiracy of silence can start with an acknowledgment that an issue (an “elephant”) is present and will not go away by itself. This is why, as the author explains, breaking silence can be a moral act.
In the beginning of the book, he provides a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” A quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. is appropriate because he exemplifies the importance of not keeping quiet in the face of inequality and injustice. Indeed, civil rights leaders usually don’t look the other way and they actually do rock the boat.
And society is better off for many a leader having challenged the status quo. We can’t forget the fact that disrupting the existing order is a key ingredient in facilitating social change. The quote is so powerful because it implies that it’s not enough to not be a bad person. The so-called “good people” who don’t say or do anything about cruel behavior or longstanding social problems can be thought of as tacitly condoning the misdeeds of others and accepting the consequences of unsolved problems.
We aren’t powerless in the face of disturbing situations or intimidating societal problems. People who engage in protests are an example of people who don’t look the other way. And some people do tackle problems and troubling issues, such as an employee who confronts company wrongdoing (a so-called “whistleblower”). For example, The Insider is a movie about a scientist who takes on the tobacco industry because he knew nicotine is more dangerous and addicting than the industry claimed. Another example of someone who does not ignore an elephant is a person who organizes an intervention to deal with a family member’s drug addiction. Watch any episode of Intervention and you’ll see it isn’t easy to break the silence about a family member whose life has spiraled out of control.
Of course, not all of the examples I mention are equivalent. A couple who has trouble getting pregnant is obviously very different from a man who molests a child. How we respond in troubling situations (and whether we say anything) will often depend on a variety of factors. Furthermore, we can’t protest all of the world’s problems all of the time. But the common point in the examples is that we may too often err on the side of silence. Maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to button our lips. Maybe we should take a more active role in fighting the problems that surround us.
There’s so much to learn from reading The Elephant in the Room. It’s one of those books that can change the way you think, and it might even change the way you act.