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Silence is (not) an option – Re-thinking oral history post-MeToo

On November 17 and 18, the Belgian network for gender history organizes the symposium ‘Silence is (not) an option, Re-thinking oral history post-MeToo’ in Brussels, Belgium.

Silence occurs in every oral history interview and comes in many forms. Some silences are striking, others are barely noticeable. Some express comfort, others discomfort. Some signify a refusal to speak, others do not. The meanings of silence are myriad: it may express taboo, trauma, forgetting, reluctance, oppression, deceit, politeness, censorship, secrecy, contemplation, reflection, or simply that there is no need to explain.

Silence may also be the very reason for choosing oral history as a methodology. For decades, oral historians have tried to remedy the absence of certain groups in the archives, such as women or the subaltern. Silences occur in every aspect of oral history, from the research design to the dissemination of research findings. Silences influence the recruitment of participants. Often, oral historians only interview self-selected speakers, who have a personal interest in sharing their perspectives. But if we select our narrators differently, there is another issue at stake: is it ethical to (try to) compel someone to speak?

Historians also use silence in many ways. They might wait in silence, giving their narrators time to remember. They might keep quiet as a way to make their narrators slightly uncomfortable, as a means of encouraging them to expand their answers. Historians often remain blank pages in order to mitigate the effects of their own words on the narration. However, they often struggle themselves to navigate narrators’ silences. The wish to record complete stories might lead them to view what remains unspoken as a missed opportunity. Probing the silence is equally complex, particularly if narrators choose to hold their tongues in order to retain some sort of control or check the imbalance of power in an interview.

This symposium will readdress these complexities of silence – a topic that has received new impetus in the wake of the MeToo movement, which has seen a growing number of survivors publicly speak out against perpetuators of sexual violence. Yet MeToo has also shown that breaking the silence has many meanings, much like silence itself. For some women, the sharing of stories as part of the MeToo-movement is a symbol of resistance or a sign of solidarity, for others it signifies an unpleasant reminder of a traumatic experience.

Keynote speakers: Estelle Freedman (Stanford University) and Emily Bridger (University of Exeter).
Deadline CfP: May 15, 2022.
All information is found on the symposium website.