Spiral of Silence
Have you been in a small group discussion but felt unable to give your opinion? Perhaps it was because your perspective was different, or because of an outspoken individual dominated the discussion. If so, you are not alone. Though discussions are intended to be open, they may not always feel that way to everyone in the room.
Women frequently struggle with discussions in church settings, especially when their “place” in the church is the central topic. I vividly remember a time when female roles were being discussed in a mixed gender class, and although women normally participated in these discussions, this day was the exception—almost all who spoke were men. After class, a number of women came up and privately shared their opinions to each other. Which made me wonder what about the classroom atmosphere prevented them from expressing those opinions publicly. Unfortunately this is not an isolated incident. On occasion, I have had conversations with female students who were frustrated by what male students said and were allowed to say in the classroom. And in my own research I have found that the impact of other students is the most discouraging factor. With that round of research I didn’t explore what exactly discouraged these women, but written responses on the forms offered possibilities: closed-mindedness, stating opinions as facts, arguments, attitudes, negativity, and poor references to the Bible.
In 1974 Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann proposed the phrase “spiral of silence” to describe the tendency for people to remain silent when they feel their views are in opposition to the majority view. This theory suggests that people remain silent out of fear of isolation, either new or worsening, reprisal, or negative consequences. This spiral occurs when someone with a perceived majority opinion speaks out confidently in support of that opinion. Those who hold a differing opinion become less comfortable with sharing their opinion and more fearful of consequences. This stifles classroom discussion and is especially frustrating and limiting to those who already feel isolated.
I am sure some of you have experienced situations where you assumed the majority would think one way, when they did not. Or perhaps you assumed you were alone in your struggles, but instead you found out that you were in good company. Generating a healthy, honest discussion in classrooms is important for people to make the personal connections they need. I sometimes hear teachers talk about good discussion or good relationships, never realizing that there is much that is left unsaid by many thoughtful people in the room. A few outspoken individuals do not equal healthy discussion, and a classroom setting like that often leaves those who already struggle with acceptance to feel even more isolated.
Perhaps that is why people cling to those who are not afraid to speak their opinions or share their struggles—they are speaking what others feel unable to say. The sudden and unexpected loss of Rachel Held Evans was felt intensely by many who felt isolated in their opinions. She was seen as an example to follow, as one who boldly spoke out for others when they themselves did not feel like they could.
To truly encourage growth and understanding, we need to encourage true discussion and understanding. It’s important that we understand classroom culture in order to guard against dynamics that perpetuate silence amid those who dogmatically claim to have the “right” opinion. We also need to encourage women to develop their voice and feel empowered to participate in discussions so that both genders are well-represented in all discussions. Only then can we move towards creating a community where understanding becomes the norm.