Conference

Jane Parpart lectures from her book Beyond the Binary: Rethinking Silence, Voice and Agency in Contested Gendered Terrains. Photo: Sarah Crookall.

U of O adjunct professor says silence can be used in conflict resolution in her new book

On Jan. 21, Jane Parpart, U of O adjunct professor and faculty fellow of conflict resolution, human security, and global governance at the University of Massachusetts Boston, lectured from her new book: Beyond the Binary: Rethinking Silence, Voice and Agency in Contested Gendered Terrains.

“In Africa, where I’ve done most of my research … there are many times when people can’t speak,” said Parpart. “In fact, the only action you can take to protect yourself, often, is silence.”

Parpart’s lecture, presented by the Centre for International Policy Study and the International Theory Network (ITN) speaker series, sought to bring nuance to the topics of silence, voice, and how women handle dangerous and gendered situations.

According to Parpart, most academic work on silence is done by studies in communication, philosophy, religion, and some gender studies. However, Parpart aims to bring silence to conflict resolution, and wedge apart the idea of silence and voice opposing one another.

Using historical cases, Parpart notes previous women’s rights movements valuing voice as a form of power, privilege, and safety. She drew on a case from the 1800s, of the Grimke sisters, who made headlines for speaking out against slavery in public. Additionally, she noted the preference for voice continuing into the 1960s.

“We were seeking voice—voice was seen as resistance, it was seen as powerful,” she said.
“We never thought about silence as being anything other than something that was forced upon us.”

You have to think about silence as a social action embedded in different social, and economic, and cultural institutions.

Jane Parpart, U of O adjunct professor and author.


A 2012 article published in the Journal of Humanities and Social Science, titled “Gender Communication: A Comparative Analysis of Communicational Approaches of Men and Women at Workplaces,” analyzed gender differences in communication in the workplace.

The article concludes, “Men will take the approach of instrumental communication style where they want the answer right away and establish their hierarchy and supremacy.

“Women, on the other hand, will be more of an expressive style of communication as they will be able to confide in others and are more sensitive to issues than men. Women will be able to build, maintain and strengthen the relationship.”

Parpart’s book aims to challenge these traditional roles.

Turning to post-colonial and non-Western responses, Parpart draws on Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, where women used silence as a form of power—choosing when and where to speak.

“That ability to know how to use speech began to be recognized as another form of power,” said Parpart.  

According to Parpart, silence and voice are strategies, which need to be approached from a global angle. Parpart references research on listening that examined women in the Israeli military, who shift from I to you pronouns when speaking about actions that are more problematic or violent.


If you’re in an insecure space you have to choose whether it is better to speak or not speak, and basically you have to make those decisions based on reading what’s going on around you.

Jane Parpart, U of O adjunct professor and author.

 

According to Parpart, those language shifts and silences contain important information.

“Two young scholars … started to use some of the tools for thinking about silences behind words,” said Parpart.

ITN network coordinator and political studies professor, Kevin McMillan, echoed the importance of international approaches to insecure spaces, and of understanding the complexity of empowerment.

“The ways in which we can learn in politics of silence and of voice in other parts of the world all seem really relevant today,” McMillan said.

Parpart added that there shouldn’t be one model to conflict resolution, rather that voice and silence should be considered depending on specific situations.

In addition to personal silence, Parpart says communal silence can be powerful in resisting higher levels of power, like governments.

“You have to think about silence as a social action embedded in different social, and economic, and cultural institutions,” she said.

To students, Parpart says getting out of insecure situations takes priority, and then suggests asking oneself the best ways to handle the specific situation.

“If you’re in an insecure space you have to choose whether it is better to speak or not speak, and basically you have to make those decisions based on reading what’s going on around you,” she said.