Risks of Speaking Out: Coping with the Inequality of Power


Once upon a time, a little girl in an orphanage heard poems in her head. Unfortunately, the strict matron forbade the children to have paper or pencils, and so there was no way for the little girl to preserve them. Afraid she’d forget the beautiful lines that skittered through her brain, the little girl snuck bits of soap from the showers, and with a stick she’d gathered from the playground, carved the poems into the soap. When the matron discovered the girl’s disobedience, she marched to her bedside ready to confiscate the nubbins of soap, but before she could reach her, the little girl popped the poems that had brought her hope and joy into her mouth and ate her precious words.

Mandelstams for speaking out postIn 1933, the great Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, wrote a poem calling Joseph Stalin a peasant killer and comparing the dictator’s mustache to a huge cockroach, his fingers to “ten thick worms.” Mandelstam had grown increasingly critical of Stalin’s totalitarian efforts and his demand that artists become propagandists for the state. The rounding up of dissidents and mass persecutions of “enemies of the people” imperiled Mandelstam’s life. Refusing to abandon his humanistic values, he suffered years of censorship, desperate living conditions, and exile. Mentally and physically exhausted, Mandelstam died before he could live out his sentence of hard labor in a gulag. Nadezhda Mandelstam devised her own private act of rebellion: committing her husband’s work to paper from memory. Her memoir, Hope Against Hope, tells of their sorrowful but courageously defiant lives.

Gandhi, Mandela, Sitting Bull, Rosa Parks, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few—these are our iconic heroes who have dissented from the dominant culture and changed history. Not all of us have the emotional strength, physical means, or are called to confront dictators or defy the boss. But, if we examine our lives, we may uncover situations in which we remained silent when we have felt tread upon, compromised or betrayed and felt powerless to protect our dignity, creativity, or our bodies from harm.

Anita Hill for speaking out postAnita Hill. Most of us know her story. In 1991, George H.W. Bush nominates Clarence Thomas for the U.S. Supreme Court seat vacated by Thurgood Marshall. Before the Senate Judiciary Committee, composed of powerful white men, Anita Hill testifies that while working under Thomas in the Department of Education and EEOC, she was bullied and sexually harassed by her boss. Other women stand in the wings to add their testimony against Thomas, but they are not given a chance to speak. Anita Hill is quickly discredited. When she’s asked why she continued working for Thomas after his alleged indecencies, she tries to explain the pressure she felt to submit to his behavior. The men on the committee do not understand. She tries to explain the climate of fear and retribution under which she worked that influenced her choices. Her testimony is dismissed. David Brock of The American Spectator labels her “a little nutty and a little slutty,” an epithet that sticks, damaging her reputation. Thomas is awarded a lifetime seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Loss of job, ostracism, impoverishment, exile, humiliation, torture, and possibly death: the cost of speaking truth to power can be life-threatening. History is saturated with sad examples of brave ones who shouted out for freedom, justice, equality, and suffered the price. Punishment is surely a powerful deterrent in keeping our silence intact.

The Emperor's New Clothes for speaking out postHere we are again in a time of public “he said/she said,” of accusation and rebuttal, a time in which the membrane between truth and fiction has worn thin. What questions might we ask about cultures or subcultures that promote and keep the status quo of silence and victimhood? How do we distinguish revenge-seekers from justice-seekers, propagandists from clear-seers? What psychology is at play within us and within the greater society that keeps repression alive? Is it only innocence and naïveté that allows the little boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to name the naked truth in front of everyone’s eyes?

These are big questions with multifactorial answers and they have led me to search poetry, philosophy, psychology, the shadow work of Carl Jung, and to Dr. Jean Baker Miller and her pioneering research on relational-cultural theory and the dynamics of domination and subordination to find answers.

Toward a New Psychology of Women, Miller’s groundbreaking book, is not only about the inner lives of women, but about the assumptions and codes of behavior maintained by the powerful over the less powerful. The paradigm she introduces is applicable wherever there are great differences in status. In a society that “emphasizes and values some aspects of the total range of human potential more than others, the valued aspects are associated closely with, and limited to, the dominant group’s domain,” she writes.

Susanna and the Elders by Gentileschi for speaking out postMiller reminds us that this paradigm of inequality starts at birth. Naturally, parents have power over their physically and emotionally dependent young children, and we can only hope that they rule benignly until those children are mature enough to stand on their own feet. In the sphere of larger societal structures, however, subordinates are not encouraged or helped to become equals. “A subordinate group,” Miller writes, “has to concentrate on basic survival. Accordingly, direct, honest reaction to destructive treatment is avoided. Open, self-initiated actions in its own self-interest must also be avoided. Such actions can and still do literally result in death for some subordinate groups.”

Across the board, in subtle and not so subtle ways, the subordinates in a society are made to feel substandard, defective, or deviant. This is the territory of stereotypes, racial slurs, ethnic jokes. Miller writes, “The actions and words of the dominant group tend to be destructive toward subordinates.” Subordinates are ascribed innate incapacities in areas of intelligence or discernment. They are viewed as defective or deficient in mind and body. If someone tells us we are dumb long enough, do we not believe we are dumb? If someone tells us we are lazy, incapable, passive, submissive, and expects us to be docile and pleasing, do we not begin to act out those traits? The internalization of myths perpetrated by the dominants about subordinates infiltrate our psyches and become internalized as well as becoming the norm of the culture. What’s more is that those who adhere to the norm are considered well adjusted. Those who rebel, reject, or resist the norm are “uppity,” “shrewish,” “shrill,” “treasonous,” “traitors,” and the like. Jean Baker Miller declares, “To be considered as an object can lead to the deep inner sense that there must be something wrong and bad about oneself….To be treated like an object is to be threatened with psychic annihilation.”

Gender, race, religion, ethnicity are all factors that influence who will be top dog in a culture. History too plays a role. Whoever “owns” the land, the plantation, the factory, the military means, education, and, of course, money, owns the power.

Susanna and the Elders Restored by Gilje for speaking out postThe good news is that change can begin on a very individual level. When we feel our personal integrity is at stake, our internal radar warns us: “I can’t take it anymore. I’ve had enough.” Jungian analyst John Beebe, author of Integrity in Depth, suggests that when inner psychic boundaries have been breached, our self-respect steps in to whoop up rage. Rage, outrage, and the demand to be respectfully treated are a healing response to violation. Anger can be a mobilizing force that prompts us to take action to restore ourselves to wholeness. Feeling the injury to our being ideally motivates us to act. Status quo persists when we have gone numb to the trauma, when we are immobilized by fear.

Author and educator Parker J. Palmer writes in his book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, “Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection, not only between people, and between mind and heart, but between one’s self-image and public mask.” Palmer continues: “We have places of fear inside us, but we have other places as well—places with names like trust and hope and faith. We can choose to lead from one of those places, to stand on the ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety.”

We have a right to protect our integrity. We can begin by holding a lantern to dark places in our lives, to become self-aware, to feel out what suffering at the hands of others has gone unspoken. Our worth is not for others to decide. Speaking out need not be a public event, but our hearts are listening for our words of self-love.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at