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The Buffer Zone of the Elephant in the Room (Revised Silence Essay)

kregensburg's picture

The Buffer Zone or the Elephant in the Room? : Looking at the Silence of Avoidance in American Classrooms


In Paul Goodman’s book Speaking and Language, he outlines nine different kinds of silence. There is one more that Goodman neglects to analyze, the silence of avoidance. In contemporary American society there is a lack of understanding around emotions. These coarse feelings are hard to talk about because the simple words of anger or sadness do not encompass all that a person is feeling. In a sense we are emotionally illiterate a term used by Susan Brison in Angela Carter’s essay, Teaching with Trauma: Trigger Warnings, Feminism, and Disability Pedagogy. Our emotional illiteracy “prevents most people from conveying any feeling that can’t be expressed in a Hallmark card” (pg 10). This quote is used in a larger conversation about trigger warnings. The use of trigger warnings has caused an upswell of debate in academia and lends itself to larger discussion about what the classroom is and what it should be. Classrooms use the silence of avoidance both to be a sterilizing safe space for students but it  also perpetuates the damage of our cultural illiteracy.  

    It can be agreed that classrooms are for learning. While learning is the goal many students come into class with various types of trauma and emotional impediments to learning. These can vary from serious issues in a child’s home life such as abuse to more temporary issues such as stress about friendships. This is problematic due to the fact that larger society assumes that everyone is always in top condition and does not have concessions for those going through emotional trauma and difficulties. Angela Carter speaks to this “...traumatized individuals are dis-abled by a society that cannot comprehend, or make room for such affective or psychosomatic responses that do not adhere to the assumed stability of able-bodymindedness” (pg 6). This echos Brison’s idea about emotional illiteracy. Society does not have the tools to address these issues so it assumes that people do not have them rather than expand to address them, leaving society with the silence of avoidance.

    For students entering a classroom that is steeped in emotional illiteracy it can either allow the student to learn in an area unpolluted by emotional trauma or it can further the hurt caused by these traumas and difficulties by not having them be addressed. In both cases there is a distinction between the student as a learner and the student as an emotional being. For some the silence of avoidance is not a negative. Silence is seen more as space. Sometimes a person needs to distance and compartmentalize an issue before they can start to sort through it. Diving right into emotional difficulties right after they happened can be scary and emotionally laborious as one tries to make sense of their life post trauma. Being able to check these intense emotions at the door can make the classroom into a sanctuary, the one place where their mind is not plagued with violent emotional distress. Silence as avoidance can actually be more of a buffer than a wall.

    On the other hand, different individuals are not able to package their emotional burden and leave it outside their classroom or they may not want to do that. If classrooms are places of learning why does society not see the classroom as a place to actually develop the ways to combat the crippling emotional illiteracy shared by so many? Students who are yearning to figure out how to sort their emotions see the silence of avoidance in the classroom not as a peaceful space to work through it on one’s own time but as the elephant in the room. It is not a safe silence but an oppressively harmful one. The rest of the world does not know how to deal with the intense emotions of people and the classroom can be added to that list. Thus classrooms can be counted as perpetuating the larger cultural damage of our society.  

    Looking at larger American society our emotional illiteracy spills out into almost every aspect of life. This paper examines how the classroom is a micro example of the inability of our culture to express and sort through emotions including those related to trauma. This does not mean that the classroom is the only place where the silence of avoidance is present. A person’s homelife, workplace, and interpersonal relationships can all employ the silence of avoidance. Just as in the classroom this avoidance can run the spectrum of safety to damaging, so it does in any other social interaction. American society has by default chosen the silence of avoidance. Classrooms contribute to this silence. It is only by chance that this avoidance of talking about emotions helps other, but overall should be viewed in a negative light. There is no way for society to learn to accept and cope with trauma if it is not spoken about.



Carter, A.M., 2015. Teaching with Trauma: Trigger Warnings, Feminism, and Disability

Pedagogy. Disability Studies Quarterly, 35(2).

Goodman, P., 1972. Speaking and language: defence of poetry, New York: Random House.


Anne Dalke's picture

Your first essay, Dictionary on Grief, looked at the large impediments to expression—such as grief--which everyone brings into the classroom, and asked how silence might function as a response to such strong emotion. In this revision, you zero in on this question to decry the “silence of avoidance” that guides most classrooms, and the “emotional illiteracy” that such silence perpetuates.

So now I’m interested in hearing you apply those two theoretical claims to some concrete particulars. When/where have you seen this played out, in your own education, in our 360° cluster, in our work on Friday afternoons? When/where might you imagine it playing out differently? Can you re-write one of the scripts we’ve already written together, nudging us all toward this so-needed form of literacy: access to, and the ability to share, our emotions?

A warning, though, that one of our readings upcoming—Wendy Brown’s essay on “Freedom’s Silences”—will challenge this claim, assert the danger of speaking and so making ourselves, our experiences, our life stories open to the manipulation of someone who might demonize or “other” us in the process. We discussed such a case in class on Thursday, the NYTimes article about Pope Francis reaching out to the struggling.