The silent silence breakers
Toward the end of 2017, TIME Magazine, as customary, came out with its choice of Person of the Year.
On the cover were five women, two of them Hollywood celebrities Ashley Judd and Taylor Swift, who represented “The Silence Breakers”—all those who spoke out against sexual harassment, misogyny, discrimination, and abuse.
Silence breakers have done much to challenge a culture that remains pervasive even in this day and age. They started a campaign, not only in show business, but across all industries in many countries of the world.
On social media, the campaign #MeToo took off in numerous languages. It showed the malaise was widespread and the attitude about it even more so. More importantly, it showed that the experience—intimidation, fear, shame, guilt, anger and indignation—was universal. There is no need for a woman to feel isolated. She is not alone.
That the global culture had to be shattered is long overdue. Now we see many powerful men in prominent positions being taken to task for something they thought they could get away with. They are being shamed for what they have been doing, and the victims of sexual harassment are standing in solidarity, giving each other strength and reassurance, wherever they may be in the globe.
But that is not the topic of this column.
Look at the TIME cover photo again. On the lower right corner, there is an arm—just an arm, cropped at the shoulder.
The arm belongs to a young hospital worker from Texas. “She is a sexual harassment victim who fears that disclosing her identity would negatively impact her family,” said TIME.
She “posed” for the cover still, to show her solidarity and to represent “all those who are not yet able to come forward and reveal their identities.”
The owner of the arm made her complaint anonymously. In the interview with TIME, she said she could not stop wondering if there was anything she could have done to prevent what happened to her.
It is quite easy to tell victims of harassment or abuse to speak up. An injustice happened, and the guilty party must be made to pay.
In reality, speaking out is never easy, especially if there are many other things at stake—families, careers, reputation.
A victim will always doubt herself: Did she in any way encourage her attacker, did she give him mixed signals, did she fight back hard enough, did she really say no, unequivocally?
What if, at that time of the abuse, she found herself unable to resist, too scared or intimidated or even aghast? What if her judgment was clouded and she did not run out screaming as she was supposed to?
What if her abuser was someone she respected, even loved as a family member, or had immense power over her life?
This is why the silence breakers are applauded—they have the courage to name and shame.
But this is also why we have to be reminded we cannot at all judge those who decide to remain anonymous, drop their case or agree to a settlement, or simply write off the experience as a nightmare.
We have never been in their shoes and we do not know what it must be like to battle these demons.
The fight against the mindset of impunity and abuse, however far we seem to have come, is never over. It is a work in progress. Those who are still trying to come to terms with what happened to them are still part of this fight—in due time, under the right circumstances.
If they were not able, or are not able, to protect themselves, then perhaps someday they will find a way to protect, stand up for, or empower another.