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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Denial (p. 14)

From chapter "Silencing"

A study of Holocaust survivors by the psychologists Allport, Bruner, and Jandorf revealed a pattern of active resistance to unpleasant ideas and an acute unwillingness to face the seriousness of the situation. As late as 1936, many Jews who had been fortunate enough to leave Germany continued to return on business trips. Others simply stayed at home, escaping on weekends into the countryside so they would not have to think about their experiences. One survivor recollected that his orchestra did not miss a beat in the Mozart piece they were playing as they pretended not to notice the smoke from the synagogue being burned next door.

And what do we make of the good German citizens who stood by? By what means did they suppress their own experiences and their own consciences in order to participate or (similarly) not resist? How did they distract themselves from the grenade that slowly rolled across the floor?

Think for a moment about the figure I gave earlier: twenty-five percent of all women in this culture are raped during their lifetimes. One out of four. Next, think for a moment about the number of children beaten, or of the one hundred and fifty million children—one hundred and fifty million—enslaved, carrying bricks, chained to looms, chained to beds. If you were not one of the women raped, if you were not one of the children beaten, if you were not one of the children enslaved, these numbers probably don’t mean very much to you. This is understandable. Consider your own life, and the ways you deny your own experience, the ways you have to deaden your own empathies to get through the day.

We live our lives, grateful that things aren’t worse than they are. But there has to be a threshold beyond which we can no longer ignore the destructiveness of our way of living. ‘What is that threshold? One in two women raped? Every woman raped? 500 million children enslaved? 750 million? A billion? All of them? The disappearance of flocks of passenger pigeons so large they darkened the sky for days at a time? The death of salmon runs so thick that it was impossible to dip an oar without “striking a silvery back”? The collapse of earthworm populations?

This deal by which we adapt ourselves to the receiving, witnessing, and committing of violence by refusing to perceive its effects on ourselves and on others is ubiquitous. And it is a bad deal. As RD. Laing has written about our culture, “The condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one’s mind, is the condition of the normal man. Society highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal. Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow normal men in the last fifty years.”

The question still hangs heavy in the air: If our behavior is not making us happy, why do we act this way?


The zoologist and philosopher Neil Evernden tells the familiar story of how we silence the world. During the nineteenth century, many vivisectionists routinely severed the vocal cords before operating on an animal. This meant that during the experiment the animals could not scream (referred to in the literature as emitting “high-pitched vocalization”). By cutting the vocal cords experimenters simultaneously denied reality—by pretending a silent animal feels no pain—and they affirmed it by implicitly acknowledging that the animal’s cries would have told them what they already knew that the creature was a sentient, feeling (and, during the vivisection, tortured) being.

As Evernden comments, “The rite of passage into the scientific,” or, I would add, modern, “way of being centered on the ability to apply the knife to the vocal cords, not just of the dog on the table, but of life itself. Inwardly he [the modern human being] must be able to sever the cords of his own consciousness. Outwardly, the effect must be the destruction of the larynx of the biosphere, an action essential to the transformation of the world into a material object.” This is no less true for our relations with fellow humans.

If we are to survive, we must learn a new way to live, or relearn an old way. There have existed, and for the time being still exist, many cultures whose members refuse to cut the vocal cords of the planet, and refuse to enter into the deadening deal which we daily accept as part of living. It is perhaps significant that prior to contact with Western Civilization many of these cultures did not have rape, nor did they have child abuse (the Okanagans of what is now British Columbia, to provide just one example, had neither word nor concept in their language corresponding to the abuse of a child. They did have a word corresponding to the violation of a woman: literally translated it means “someone looked at me in a way I don’t like”). It is perhaps significant as well that these cultures did not drive the passenger pigeon to extinction, nor the salmon, the wood bison, the sea mink, the Labrador heath hen, the Eskimo curlew, the Taipei tree frog. Would that we could say the same. It is perhaps significant that members of these cultures listen attentively (as though their lives depend on it, which of course they do) to what plants, animals, rocks, rivers, and stars have to say, and that these cultures have been able to do what we can only dream of, which is to live in dynamic equilibrium with the rest of the world.