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Bearing Witness

I Want to Speak Out, But Can’t!


Imagine you are in a small room that is practically bare and you are locked in it. You bang on the door, nobody comes. You are trapped, for an indefinite period of time, without hope for escape. Eventually, someone comes and releases you. You try to tell your story, of your entrapment and what transpired that got you trapped. Nobody listens. You force your story to be heard. Nobody believes you. They tell you it didn’t happen; you are making it up. They say it wasn’t so, the person who released you told a different story. That person is believable, not you.

I ask you to consider: What happens when one has experienced an extremely difficult situation and no one will hear it? What happens when one cannot use ones own voice to be heard? What happens if society makes this even more difficult. Maybe a law is created that says only certain people can act as witnesses, or prejudice stipulates that certain people need to be viewed differently?

Through this speech I hope to give you a cause to think about the impact of not being able to give testimony and the cycles of abuse and discrimination that it perpetuates.

I would like to tell you a story of not being able to speak up; not being heard.

When you listen, try to think about what is happening in this story. These elements might be in it: An old traumatic event, a new trauma, not being able to tell, not believed when telling, stopped from telling, discriminated against, being set apart as “different”, few possibilities for change, lack of opportunities, and a cycle of pain and abuse. As you listen, consider what might be a differentiating element?

You are an advocate in a local hospital and visit a psychiatric unit. After you unlock the door to the unit a patient approaches you to ask you for help. She continues, “no one helps me. When can I leave? This place is a horrible.” As you stand there you over hear someone suddenly yell. You look up and see a patient being rapped hard on the head by a nursing staff. This nursing staff was the same person who had yelled when the patient asked for his locked up belongings so he could shower within the assigned period. Other staff also hear the upsetness and immediately approach the patient, subduing him in order to haul him off to the “quiet room”. In the process his arm and rib are broken. The patient wants to speak up but will not be believed and then will be too afraid to. The advocate’s testimony is dismissed because the advocate is considered to have a “psychiatric diagnosis” because of a hospitalization many years ago. The doctor in charge testifies that the patient’s injuries were self inflicted. And the patient who you were talking to is suddenly discharged without any discharge plans and with almost no possibilities to get the help she seeks.

There are many things to think about in this true story[1]. But stop and think – Would this story be different if the testimony was not invalidated? Do you think this story would be different if one was able to act as a witness for oneself or others?

What is the impact of not being able to act as a witness for oneself or others? What happens if ones testimony is invalidated?

I’m going to give you a list of examples of different populations starting from pre-revolutionary America who have lived in the United States. While I list them, think about each group of people. They all have something in common. Each group has or is experiencing their voices silenced. During the time their voices were silenced they suffered extreme conditions: Europeans displace Native Americans, Slaves, Women during the Salem Witch Hunt, Blacks during segregation, Women before the right to vote, 19th century Chinese Americans, Immigrant groups, Japanese and Eluit Americans during WWII, Poor people, Victims of human trafficking, Adults and children who have disabilities, Children who are regularly bullied in the schoolyard, All children, Victims of abuse, 0r neglect, Victims of abuse who are stuck in cycles of abuse, Adults who receive a diagnosis of Mental Illness, People who reach out and find there is little to be found, People who are labeled as “them”.

In varying degrees we know the history of these people. In some cases it was a law that separated the people; like in these more familiar examples: Women, blacks and immigrants. And, in most populations, it is also the prejudice label of “less than human”, “enemy” or people who we need to “protect ourselves from” that creates the boundaries. These boundaries are entrenched with laws and discrimination.

I know this is a lot to hear. I’m sure that each one of you can relate to what I am saying in varying ways and varying degrees. But right now it is not your turn to tell me what you have to say. It is your turn to listen. And luckily it will be only for a little while that you will have to carry inside of you the feelings and / or memories my words illicit.

But let’s consider for a moment that I set up a law that you are helpless to oppose. You will have to suffer in ways that are too extreme for you to bear. It won’t matter if you object because you will not be heard, and there is little hope for this to change. How is this possible? The law is: you cannot bear witness. You cannot bear witness for yourself or for others.

How do you think this story will play itself out? What details can you fill in?

Let’s suppose now you can bear witness. You speak up. You are believed. Nobody threatens you. Nobody takes away your rights. Nobody hurts you because you spoke up. And something changes for the positive.

Discrimination and segregation lead to abuse. Perpetuation of cycles of abuse and discrimination continue when people cannot speak up. Prejudices stipulate that certain people need to be viewed differently. They are called “them” and “those”. And accordingly may have different rights. “Those” people may be segregated and discriminated against and in turn abuse cycles are created or continued.

I believe that nobody should be a “them”. I believe that suffering falls on people who are called “them”. I believe that by eliminating the concept of “them” and giving everyone, without exception, the right to be heard in order to bear witness for oneself and others that the discrimination and abuse caused by it will change.

I challenge you to think differently. I challenge you not to refer to others as “them” and think they are so different then you. I challenge you to speak up and work to not deny this for others. As Toastmasters, I challenge you to put your heart into the skills that Toastmasters teaches. You have the opportunity to learn how to speak up. Don’t say you “can’t”. We are lucky to have the wonderful role models and tools that Toastmasters provides.

I challenge you to take advantage and learn to use Toastmasters effectively. One day I hope, everyone will have the right and opportunities to be able to speak up. We have this right and we are here. We choose to learn to speak more effectively. And today, together, we celebrate this.

[1] All aspects of this story really happened but are compiled into this condensed version

Address given to Toastmasters International

Copyright Eva Scholle

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