On language, dialogue and trust
By Joanna Hoffman
Change, when it comes, cracks everything open.
― Dorothy Allison
I write this as a flawed human being. I’ve studied feminism and queer theory. I’ve worked on rape crisis hotlines and at domestic violence shelters. I’ve survived assault and I’ve loved survivors. I’ve also called a woman a bitch. I’ve been grossly ignorant about my race, gender identity, and class privileges. I’ve hesitated to speak up when I should have.
I don’t believe there is such a thing as an expert in anything involving human interactions. People are infinitely complicated. We will never know the thousands of experiences, beliefs and unconscious dogmas that have shaped each other’s lives. The word home means something different to everyone. Same with the words love, survivor, andsafety.
I’m a linguistic nerd. I’m fascinated by how language has been used to attempt to codify complex concepts for shared understanding. But I’m also aware of how often those attempts have failed us. We often don’t ask each other what words mean to us and what has shaped those definitions. One person’s safety can be another person’sdanger.
When another human being tells us that they felt unsafe, they’re speaking from their own personal definition of safety. Sometimes, the situation is very clear—person 1 followed person 2 home, uninvited; person 1 held person 2 down; person 2 said no and person 1 didn’t listen. Often, it’s murky and complicated. Maybe there was no violence, but there was discomfort. Maybe drugs or alcohol were involved and memories are fuzzy. Maybe allegiances made the act of speaking out feel impossible.
Despite what my resume might claim, I am not an expert in anything except my own deepest intuitions and perspectives. I’m not an expert in community-building, or poetry, or LGBTQ advocacy, even though I am in invested in and care deeply about all of these things. I’m an expert in my own perception of trust. Over the past four years that I’ve lived in New York City, I’ve developed a few close, long-lasting friendships. I trust these people, and I believe their stories.
Years of my own understanding of silencing have taught me that, more often that not, people who speak out do so because their safety, or that of someone they love, has pushed them to that point. Speaking out is a not a fun or easy process. Yes, falsified claims happen. But personally, I’d rather risk that happening then refuse to help someone who feels they may be in danger.
I’ve thought a lot this week about a man I used to be close friends with back in high school, and who later exhibited sexually predatory behavior towards me. Above all else, I was furious at myself for not seeing him as he was and for taking so long to finally walk away from my friendship with him. I know now that I couldn’t have been an expert in him or his character. I trusted him until I couldn’t. And then I needed to redefine what trust meant to me. Now, I’m a lot stricter about who I do trust. When I do trust someone, it means a lot more than it did when I was younger. Life is all about editing and re-editing our own dictionaries.
I say all this to say, it’s okay to admit that sometimes we just don’t know. It’s okay to ask questions, to have dialogue, and most importantly, to listen. Finding solutions isn’t just about asking the right questions, or even speaking the same language. It’s about hearing each other’s stories, and allowing those stories the space and the volume they deserve. It’s about understanding that some things will always be lost in translation, but that’s never a reason to stop listening. One way or another, we’ll get the message.