Acknowledging the “Liberalism of Fear” in Breaking a Conspiracy of Silence: Sexual Violence in Conflict

In the 21st century, the violence humanity experiences does not confine its cruelty within the borders of enduring totalitarian regimes. Nor does it find primary expression in warfare among states. The violence against humanity in our time is a pain suffered largely in silence by those women, men, and children who are the casualties of a conflict many experience, yet few openly acknowledge: the pain of sexual violence in conflict.

Our awareness that sexual violence in conflict is as pervasive as it is cruel, psychologically and physically, requires an open, yet difficult, conversation to break a conspiracy of silence before we may nurture a public discourse. As educators and students, we begin this conversation in the classroom, as we listen to the stories of survivors whose testimonies sustain that emerging voice, which overwhelms us amid the silence that is deafening.

For some among us, we begin to internalize the stories of survivors as we acknowledge “the liberalism of fear” that Shklar defined as “a shifting line, but not an erasable one,” along which “The limits of coercion begin, though they do not end, with a prohibition upon invading the private realm…”.

As we listen to the story Zainab Hawa Bangura tells of her time in Sierre Leone, we begin to raise questions that disrupt the status quo as we unveil the existence of abuses denied by perpetrators or hidden by those afraid and ashamed to speak.

In the face of denial and shame, our fear, individual and collective, interjects itself and presents us with a choice. Fear can immobilize or induce us. If we are induced, our voices speak “to restrain…abusers of power” with a belief that “Liberalism must restrict itself…”, as Shklar writes, “…to lift the burden of fear…from the shoulders of adult men and women…”.

Fear and cruelty are the weapons upon which perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict rely. Our purpose as educators and students is to discover the stories, as we dispel the myths, about the conditions under which sexual violence in conflict occurs.

Conversation, rather than isolation, sustains our acknowledgement of violence that is still in the shadows. That single, persistent doubt, openly expressed, revealing the dissonance between what so many inwardly experience and what is outwardly expressed, provides self-reliance and stubbornness. These are the qualities needed initially to overcome efforts that ignore “the elephant in the room” Zerubavel depicts.

In the environment of this century, educators cooperate as we converse to learn with our students from survivors’ testimonies. We question, as does Castells, how communicative autonomy has impacted the overcoming of fear.

Ours is a vocation in education to nurture that global public space for communication about sexual violence in conflict to emerge. The telling of authentic stories asks that we do no less.

-Colette Mazzucelli, Brooklyn, March 26, 2013.
Judith N. Shklar. Political Thought and Political Thinkers. Edited by Stanley Hoffmann. The University of Chicago Press, 1998.

‘Sexual violence in conflict and beyond: a conspiracy of silence’. Classroom Conversations. United Nations Secretariat. March 15, 2013.

Eviatar Zerubavel. The Elephant in the Room. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Manuel Castells. Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. Library of Congress. November 23, 2012.

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