Author’s note: This essay appeared in the inaugural edition of Project Intersect, a new zine that “encourages radical intersectional analyses of oppression that are sorely needed both in activist circles and in general public discourse.” Learn more at http://cargocollective.com/projectintersect.
I walk out of the house and gingerly step down the stairs into the yard where our rescued chickens reside. I step gingerly because I know that the chickens, especially Amandine the hen, have gotten wise to the fact that my entrance into the yard usually means a treat is in store.
The ruse is short lived.
Amandine toddles across the yard on her little legs in a sprint that is graceful in its awkwardness. I sprinkle a mix of grains and seeds onto the ground, and Orion the rooster begins to cluck with short, excited sounds as he picks up and drops a kernel of corn, a sunflower seed, or a wheat berry. The other hens are beckoned by his proclamations telling them that food has been found, and once they arrive he proceeds to select certain morsels for them to eat. Often they just ignore him and eat what they want, but he continues to cluck excitedly at the food—or to make scornful sounds that seem to tell them they ought to be heeding his rooster’s wisdom. He does like to think he is in charge.
Our chickens talk almost constantly, conversing in their very own Parliament of Fowls. The boys especially make themselves heard, in particular when food is discovered or (and this is most endearing) when one of the hens is nesting to lay an egg. The hens themselves are quiet when nesting, each laboring for the consummation of the natural task that we humans have hijacked and made unnatural, often ultimately fatal. The roosters, on the other hand, are easily excitable and complain woefully while their hen is laying.
These are some of the many voices I hear every day, and every day I take the time to listen to what they are saying.
Though not human, chickens and all other animals do, in fact, speak. They have voices, though so often we silence them with our din.
Even before my life with chickens began, I found (and took) opportunities to speak on behalf of others—for non-human animals, for the Earth, and for humans, all of whom have been cheated of justice and respect in a system fueled by exploitation. Although halting and easy to miss, my voice has joined in a larger conversation, a rising chant and rallying cry against oppression in all its forms.
Once one gets in the rhythm of speaking, it is dangerously simple to get caught up in the act—in hearing the sound of my own voice and in the pointed rhetoric and shimmering abstractions that language creates—and thus trip over my own tongue as the speaking becomes a matter of process and form, not of having an intentional impact on individuals and ecosystems.
For in the intoxication of speech, in the blissful wandering of the mind around the cavern of itself, I find it terribly easy to lose perspective. To become ungrounded. To ignore the lone, quiet voice of self-reflection that draws me down into the reality of my body, my life, my self, my marriage, my family, and the vast world I inhabit.
This voice asks the most enervating questions, of course:
What historical and cultural forces, what normalized assumptions and values, have allowed me—a white male in the Western developed world of modern America—to have a voice, to speak?
What about those same forces, assumptions, and values have made it nigh impossible for others—for the very ones I am speaking, screaming, fighting for—to speak, to be heard, to have any voice whatsoever?
Finding one’s voice is a process of constant struggle—an internal and external labor of discrimination amongst the legion of voices that are screaming in order to silence. It has taken decades for me to hear even a hint of that voice, all the while recognizing more clearly that it is not one, but multitudes . . . and that there are so many others, not my own, that need to be heard.
Throughout the process of speaking, then, I feel that I must always keep asking myself: What privileges make it possible for me to speak, to write, to be heard? What forces stifle and choke out the other voices so desperately wanting to be heard?
And: What can I do to silence the noise of society so that their wisdom might be heard, be internalized, and be transformed into a catalyst for change?
There is a delicate beauty in the act of listening, of attending to. To cultivate a chosen silence and perceive it as active, engaging, and enlightening is not what we have been taught to do. We have learned that silences are meant to be filled.
The world is a noisy, noisy place. So much of the din around us is of our own making, and it serves as a convenient distraction.
Amongst all of this numbing cacophony, those of us fighting injustice and the oppression of others position ourselves as the voices, the agents, the change-makers for those who have been robbed of the power to speak, to act, to make change.
But we are not their voice.
The oppressed have a voice. Though the efforts to silence them are myriad and mighty, they have a voice, and they have never stopped speaking. We just have found it easier to stop listening.
We may help them to be heard. We may break down barriers so they may be attended to, and we may give them venues in which to speak.
What we cannot and must not do is minimize what they have to say because their language is not ours. We cannot relegate them to silence because their speech is unfamiliar, challenging, and not for our benefit.
We must open up the gaps and the silences so that they might be heard. We must hear their speech for what it is: the indelible expression of who and what they are. And once we hear, we must then allow ourselves to listen . . .
Perhaps the time has come for us to offer our silence to those who have not been heard, to allow them to speak without judgment or prejudice. For unless we perceive them for who they are, not what we want them to be, we will remain forever separate, mistakenly situating ourselves above and in the role of saviors rather than joining together with them in solidarity.
Let us then speak with them, not for them, and offer them what gaps and silences we can so that they, too, might be heard.