Silence is Violence

22 Nov

One of the things I do with my time is to work with prisoners on performing Shakespeare. In the project I direct, this leads up to the prisoners at Southern Queensland Correctional Centre performing a Shakespeare play for audiences of other inmates, families, staff and invited guests from the community. At the moment I’m travelling in the United States and Italy, exploring and working with a few similar projects. I spent a month in Michigan working with Shakespeare Behind Bars on both an adult men’s and a juveniles’ (mixed) project led by Curt Tofteland (his TEDx talk is here). After that, I took part in the first Shakespeare in Prisons Conference at the University of Notre Dame. For the last handful of days I’ve been in Kentucky with the original Shakespeare Behind Bars project that Tofteland founded, now run by Matt Wallace.

Benjamin Prindable Photography-13

As a result of this, I have made valuable connections with many other Prison Shakespeare practitioners, as this can be fairly isolated work. The QSE project is the only Prison Shakespeare project in Australia, and one of only two in the southern hemisphere (the other being by the Independent Theatre Movement of South Africa). I’ve been steeped in the practice and philosophies of this kind of work (and pretty much nothing else except beer and bourbon) for the last five weeks.

I’m not going to write about the details of the process night about the benefits and challenges. You can read all about that in the final chapter of Teaching Shakespeare Beyond the Centre. Instead I want to explore here why arts work of any kind is important for marginalised populations. This is basically the written version of a short talk I gave at Women in Transition‘s open mike poetry night,  ‘Silence is Violence‘ held at the Rudyard Kipling bar in Louisville on November 21, 2013.


In both the USA and Australia, and I suspect this is true all over the world, there is a link between poverty, socio-economic marginalisation, and crime. Minorities and people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds are over-represented in prisons everywhere.

James Gilligan is a psychiatrist, now retired, who has been a professor at both Harvard and New York University, and was the director of mental health for the Massachusetts prison system. Drawing on twenty-five years’ experience of working with the most violent offenders in the prison system, Gilligan has published more than half a dozen books on the causes of violence. His work identifies SHAME as the cause of all violence, whether sanctioned by the state (in which case we call it ‘war’ or ‘punishment’) or not (in which case we call it ‘crime’ or ‘self-harm’). According to Gilligan, violence-inducing shame occurs when a person who has insufficient reserves of self-love perceives that they have been attacked, slighted, or abandoned. Most people build up reserves of self-love by receiving love when they are children and adolescents. Just as a small child cannot feed itself, a young person can only receive love from others. Through receiving the love of others, we build reserves of love which assist us weathering the disconnection that occurs when we (believe we have been) attacked or abandoned. In the absence of these reserves, a person who perceives they have been slighted or abandoned suffers crushing shame, which Gilligan describes as a ‘death of the soul’. In accordance with the maxim “hurt people hurt people”, someone experiencing this soul-numbing shame is likely to inflict hurt on self or others. For cultural (not biological) reasons, men are more likely to inflict hurt on others, women on themselves, in myriad ways.

DSC04920    Benjamin Prindable Photography-104

When Brené Brown made a detailed study of shame, and asked a thousand people about their experience of shame, she reported that they fell into two camps: those who said “I don’t know what you’re talking about”, and those who said “I know exactly what you’re talking about, and I don’t want to talk about it.” She goes on to point out that, however, the less we talk about shame, the stronger it gets. This begets a cycle of silence and shame that leads us to a place where we can no longer talk about our shameful feelings, and become disconnected from others. We either withdraw, or attack, or present a front of invulnerability, or a combination of all of the above. As Thomas Kyd wrote in The Spanish Tragedy over four hundred years ago, “Where words prevail not, violence prevails.”

So how are we to reverse this cycle, to alleviate this violence-inducing shame, and allow people to restore their capacity to speak about their fear of disconnection, so that they may re-connect to one another and to society? Brown argues that empathy is the antidote to shame. Empathy is a much misused and misunderstood, or should I say vaguely used, term. Many people, under the influence of popular culture, believe that empathy means feeling what another person feels. But this is not empathy, this is something more akin to sympathy (from the Greek for “same-feeling”). Empathy (Greek “into-feeling”) is the ability to understand why a person feels the way they feel, to stand in their shoes, to see with their eyes. It is to understand why a person feels what they feel – and this has nothing to do with agreeing with their beliefs or condoning their actions. It is a profoundly connecting experience that still allows everyone to retain their individual beliefs and feelings.

In 2006, when he was still a US Senator, Barack Obama was invited to speak at Northwestern University‘s commencement ceremony (that’s what Americans call ‘graduation’ – I kinda like it, it says it’s the start of something, not the end). Here is an excerpt from his speech:

“There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit — the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us… we live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses.

“They will tell you that the Americans who sleep in the streets and beg for food got there because they’re all lazy or weak of spirit. That the inner-city children who are trapped in dilapidated schools can’t learn and won’t learn and so we should just give up on them entirely.  That the innocent people being slaughtered and expelled from their homes half a world away are somebody else’s problem to take care of.  I hope you don’t listen to this. I hope you choose to broaden, and not contract, your ambit of concern.”


I don’t want to discuss whether, as US President, Obama has done enough to redress this ’empathy deficit’, but rather to focus on his acknowledgment that lack of empathy has led to the shaming of the poor, the homeless, and the marginalised. I don’t believe Australia differs qualitatively from the USA in this regard. Look at our treatment of asylum seekers, indigenous Australians, our own poor and homeless, and the targeting of people outside the ‘mainstream’ in general.

So, through empathy, we can make it possible to refill the empty reservoirs of self-love in the destitute and the violent, and in our own state. Drop by blessed drop. It is not an easy fix, it takes work. But the results are manifest wherever we try. Tom Magill, Artistic Director of the Educational Shakespeare Company and director of the mind-blowing film Mickey B, told me about one prisoner in particular with whom he had worked, who had a reputation for being non-conforming, violent, aggressive and disruptive. After working with Magill for a few years, he had become communicative, genial, engaged, and constructive (but not complacent or placid). The surprised Warden of Maghaberry prison (where Mickey B was filmed) asked Magill “What did you do to him?” To this, Magill responded, “We treated him like a human being. You treated him like an animal and he bit you.”

Participating in the arts can build empathy. With some exceptions, arts facilitators model empathy – they accept participants as they are, and see value in whatever a person brings to the work. I believe that theatre is especially powerful in this regard, because in order to play a role, one must be able to step into someone else’s shoes, regardless of whether one agrees with the character or not, and think their thoughts. It is not that arts practitioners have to be consciously working to build empathy, in fact I believe the work is most powerful when we do not, when we simply focus on creating art. We are assisting people to create the best art they can, but a corollary of this is that it will build empathy, because more empathy makes us better artists.

Benjamin Prindable Photography-125

I like to work with Shakespeare in this context for another reason. Shame and disconnection lead to silence, which leads to more shame. Many of the people in marginalised groups have been silent for a lifetime. More than that, shame tends to be generational. Invalidated and disenfranchised people tend to come from communities of people who are disenfranchised, who have not been heard, and who therefore and thereby become silenced.

I believe it is the role of the arts to speak (paint, draw, sing etc) the unspeakable. To give voice to that which has been silenced.

When we are dealing with a lifetime of silence, or a generational history of silence, when those people finally connect to their desire to speak and be heard, they often do not have the words. Shakespeare has the words. This was my own personal experience when I came to Shakespeare performance in my late twenties, and that is I want to share with the people around me.


(photographs of the SPP by Benjamin Prindable – Queensland law prohibits the idenfitication of high security prisoners, which is why you won’t see their faces in these shots)


2 Responses to “Silence is Violence”

  1. Silvan Rus November 24, 2013 at 11:40 pm #

    Reblogged this on Tales of a Poor Player and commented:
    A great initiative by a grand theatre company I’m working with called the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble. By Artistic Director and friend, Rob Pensalfini.


  1. Kicking it down the line | The Fifth Columnist - November 25, 2013

    […] with me.” James Gilligan, the expert on violence who I have cited in other posts (here and here), speaks in the introduction to one of his books about delving into his family history and seeing […]

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