Your Silence will
not protect you

essay,  2022

Negative Peace
and the Obnoxious Silence

“Peace is not merely the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.” —Martin Luther King Jr.”

Kazu Haga, Kingian nonviolence trainer and restorative justice advocate in his book Healing Resistance 🌏️, talks about Johan Galtung’s famous concept: ‘negative peace’. It happens when we do not deal with the root cause of a problem, but “to sweep issues under the rug and settle for a cheap yet ultimately unsustainable negative peace.” (Haga, 2020) Negative peace is “the absence of violence” (Galtung, 1970) when we look away to avoid confrontation with the harm that surrounds us despite the unbearable tension in the thin air. Negative peace occurs when violence is solved through silencing, removal or erasure. Negative peace is a repressive condition, many of us live our lives enduring everyday harm without engaging in conflict to avoid confrontation, backlash, shame or punishment. It is easier to treat the symptoms, solve the consequences instead of looking into what conditions enabled the violence in the first place. Haga reminds us that we are told to play by the rules, assimilate, stay put, speak only if it's appropriate and not make a mess:

︎︎︎“We’re told in corporate workplaces not to speak out about sexual harassment because it would “create conflict.” We’re told in our churches not to question the use of church funds because “it’s improper.” We’re told in our schools not to raise the issue of professors’ ignorance of their power and privilege because “it’s not our place.” So we go on pretending there’s no problem and holding it all in. Enduring. Negative peace, negative peace, negative peace.”  🌎️

In 1977 Audre Lorde, self-defined “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” shared her daughter’s advice on the importance of breaking her silence

"Tell them about how you're never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there's always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside.” 🌎️

Lorde realised the need to “transform (her) silence into language and action” after she underwent a breast surgery to remove a tumour. The fear of death made her recognize the political responsibility to use (for gods sake) her vocal cords, to claim her place, to strike a pose onbehalf of all black queer woman in the limited spectrum of human agency. She argues that injustice can’t be challenged with inaction, injustice must be called-out as frequently and creatively as possible.

“We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and ourselves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid.” 🌎️

Silence and submission – in the long run – condition our bodies to be tense, defensive and eventually numb, preventing us to oppose violence because we internalised the mechanism of self-disciplining, accepted regimes of truth and the expectations by nation, state or institution. Julian Assange australian hacker, journalist, human rights activist and founder of Wikileaks wrote this blog post in 2007, on his blog on

“Every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to be passive in its presence and thereby eventually lose all ability to defend ourselves and those we love. In a modern economy it is impossible to seal oneself off from injustice.” 🌏️

Negative peace and obnoxious silence could lead to extreme, unpredictable situations, when telling, exposing truth is an act of crime. “I had a responsibility to the public. I stopped seeing just statistics and information and I started seeing people.”🌏️ The words come from Chelsea Manning, a trans whistleblower during an ABC exclusive interview. Wikileaks released an edited video footage called Collateral Murder (fig1) with the help of Chelsea Manning. It was recorded in 2007 from a U.S. Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad, Iraq, killing at least nine men, including a Reuters news photographer and his driver.

“The story of Collateral Murder  is about how the very exposure of a crime was itself defined a crime, and that we are told, with no hint of irony, that the real threat to democracy is the fact that we have access to these pictures or documents at all. With logic like that, there is little wonder that these forms of dissent are likely to continue.” 🌎️

The message of the video footage is a reminder that the very act of exposing a secret material that challenges state power can be as powerful as the material itself.

(fig1) Collateral Murder - Released video of US military war crime by Wikileaks leaked by Chelsea Manning. 🌏️

Structural Injustice and
Political Responsibility

Iris Marion Young, American political theorist emphasised that oppression and domination are structural. They are not directly caused by individuals or even groups, their causes are “embedded in unquestioned norms, habits and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules. Oppressions are systematically reproduced in major economic, political and cultural institutions.” 🌍️

Structural injustice when we know the environmental and societal costs of mass-market retailers like Zara, H&M or GAP, but we keep seeing these corporations continue to dominate, extract and exploit.🌎️ Structural injustice when we know the devastating consequences of animal agriculture but we keep seeing new agriculture policies such as CAP (Common Agricultural Policy), being accepted to pour billions of euros into unsustainable European agribusinesses.🌏️ Structural injustice when we know how misinformation and discrimination built into the algoryhm of Facebook and Instagram in order to viciously commodify our personal life but seeing these tech giants remain in unquestionable levels of power and political influence.🌏️ Structural injustice when we know the exploitative labour conditions of Amazon, but the global demand and dependency on commodities, grants unusual leverage for the company to obscure and suppress the truth of the powerless.🌍️

Young argues, we need novel concepts of political rather than legal responsibility which can address structural injustices.

“A concept of political responsibility says that we who are part of these processes should be held responsible for the structural injustice, as members of the collective that produces it, even though we cannot trace the outcome we regret to our own particular actions in a direct causal chain. A concept of political responsibility fills this role without attributing blame.” 🌎️

It is our individual responsibility to find ways to work collectively to address and solve problems for which we are politically responsible. It is not rooted in some generic morality but it is grounded in our own decisions and actions to the processes that cause injustice for many. Young continues that “political responsibility is a shared responsibility, which can best be discharged through collective action. It is nevertheless individually distributed: transformation in structures that produce or perpetuate injustice can occur only when many individuals take responsibility for making such transformation.” 🌎️

Political Responsibility when we see Amazon employees speak up against the company’s climate policy 🌍️ or the warehouse workers (unsuccessful) attempt to unionise in order to demand fair working conditions.🌏️ It is an act of political responsibility when Starbucks employees effectively unionise to hold the company accountable and demand dignity and higher wages to workers. 🌍️ (fig2.) It is political responsibility to “encourage people to be autonomous participants in determining their actions” and to “enable all people to develop and exercise their capacities and express their experiences, their needs, thoughts and feelings for themselves” .🌍️ It is political responsibility to Collectivise Facebook, a project by Jonas Staal, that “aims to force legal recognition of Facebook as a public domain that should be under ownership and control of its users.”🌏️

We have little individual power against structural injustice, even those of us who enjoy great privilege from them. Privilege is key here, because “those privileges obligates those who benefit to action, not because they are necessarily especially blameworthy, but because their actions are connected to the maintenance of those structures and because they are the most likely to be able to weather the challenges brought about by challenging the structures.”🌎️

(fig2) Starbucks employees and supporters react as votes are counted during a union-election watch party, New York, U.S., Dec. 9, 2021. (AP Photo) 🌏️

Positive Peace and 
Culture of Accountability

“I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” 🌏️
Dr. King

Positive peace is not quiet, not calm and not serene. Real peace is courageous, outspoken and resilient in its delicate vulnerability. Positive peace is not an absence of tension, rather an open, non-judgemental in-tense space that allows all voices to be heard and demands everyone to listen. Positive peace is transformative, democratic and nonviolent. Positive peace can lead to embracing the culture of accountability.

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are at the beginning of mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” 🌏️

Greta Thunberg, on September 23rd, 2019 during the United Nations conference confronted world leaders with her rage. Children holding adults accountable can be odd given the lesser social status of a child but a child holding world leaders accountable is one of a kind. Greta Thunberg has ruptured the long-held negative peace to claim a strong voice, that is enough loud and articulate enough to confront and criticise people with political and economic power. She has shaken the thick veil of the crisis of our imagination, that seduced us to believe that things can get better if we are - regular citizens - just wait and do nothing.

“How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you're doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.” 🌏️

This speech and her speeches, in general, are a symptom of the suffocating silence, inaction, complacency and mistrust that we as a civil society happen to bear against the elected political representatives. This anger is a symptom of the missing culture of accountability. (Probably due to structural injustice.)

Speaking the truth is transformative therefore dangerous and risky. Power fears the truth, so they do everything to discredit those who dare to object to authority. Michel Foucault considered power, not as a concentrated, centralised, top-down force but something that is omnipresent, where knowledge is enforced through mainstream discourse. Those who own, produce and manage knowledge are more likely to be in control and enforce their interests to protect that position. 🌍️

An early example of demanding corporate accountability comes from 1962, from a young American female scientist, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. The book investigates the widely used synthetic pesticides called DDT across the United States, which was adopted as part of the US federal law after WWII as a protection against insects carrying deadly viruses and farm crops. However, DDT was a poison that killed not only insects but had devastating consequences on the environment and human health. Carson compiled all the evidence that she could gather and made it into a book that became so convincing and popular, that big chemical companies got under socio-political pressure. Velsicol Chemical Corporation fought back with a lawsuit against the publisher of the book, Monsanto attempted to discredit and shame Carson publicly to derail the public attention. In the end, Carson changed the way environmental policies are considered which led to a complete ban on DDT. 🌎️

Carson politicised the invisible and outlined a concept that is what we call today ‘slow violence’. A term coined by Rob Nixon, in his book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, to demarcate a difficult category of harm, were “suffering, degradation, and pain inflicted upon people and communities by impersonal, dispersed forces; spread across time and space, with no defined point of impact, but nevertheless the result of a perpetrator/s’ actions.” 🌏️ Carson’s collection of evidence against the use of DDT was not against the use of chemicals in general but to open up the awareness of the public about our interdependency not only with nature but also with our own ideas about protection. Who gets to decide who lives and who dies and what costs? Carson thinks that while we focus on the narrative of corporate success of eliminating large populations of insects with the use of DDT, in the background a long-term, invisible and unstoppable slow violence emerges in forms of cancer, species extinction, soil and groundwater pollution..etc.

"Slow violence defies most conventional understandings of harm. Whilst its victims and perpetrators may be human, the way it plays out is environmental, it does not neatly fit into news cycles, election seasons, or economic quarters.” 🌏️

Bearing witness, knowing something or possessing a piece of evidence of human rights violations that is not yet legally a crime but morally, socially unacceptable, raising our voice, creating media attention, putting our concern and solidarity into the spotlight could lead to change. In 2003, a 17 years old chinese female migrant worker named Tian Yu attempted a suicide, – as the last resort to protest against inhuman working conditions – jumping from the roof of Foxconn notorious factory, where most of Apple Iphone are assembled. Miraculously she survived, but was left paralysed from the waist down. Foxconn, who employs around 1.4 million wage workers, decided to put an anti-suicide net around the building, and to deny any responsibility of suicide attempts. The remorseless reaction could easily have slipped through the public radar, but Jenny Chan, a young journalist and activist from Hong Kong began to publicise the story that led to a major reform within the Foxconn factory for the better. 🌍️ 🌏️ Richard Appelbaum’s research focuses on the corruption of corporate accountability programs in forms of external audits, that issues licences to factories to circumvent the liability to care for and invest in labour protection measures or increase minimum wages for workers. The Rana Plaza disaster in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013 was an emblematic example of how unimportant the lives of people who make the garment products are and how major fashion brands and retailers washed their hands since they not only outsourced the assembly and the making of the cloth but they outsourced care, liability, responsibility towards factory owners who treat workers miserably. The building of Rana Plaza before the collapse was inspected by a private corporate accountability audit and given a green light to meet the deadlines set by western companies. This culture of non-accountability is what makes contemporary capitalism unsustainable, maintains inequality and keeps us alienated from each other. 🌏️

Sonya Shah, restorative justice advocate, describes accountability as an act of love, “a radical, amazing way to choose to stay in relationship to each other, while acknowledging that harm can happen, and actually, that we're all going to hurt each other at some point...So it's this radical way of saying: I choose you, I choose relationship, I choose community. I'm going to stay in community with you. There's no throwaway. We can't throw each other away.” 🌏️ Because we are all critters on this planet, holding each other accountable is a way to find a common language of kindness that respects our interdependency. I am investing in your growth, your transformation because “my liberation is bound up with you.”🌏️ We can’t reach the King's “beloved community” or the Harawayian “community of compost” without being able to hold ourselves and each other accountable, reminding each other that only through relations, through the difference we share we can build trust and hold space for future visions. According to Priya Rai, accountability is “demanding someone to be responsible for their choices and the consequences of their choices.” 🌏️ Imagine Apple would say they want to take responsibility for their entire production cycle, they would see Foxconn factory workers as part of their community and they would choose to stay in relationship with them by taking their own self-accountability very seriously so eventually they realise they can’t continue to be financially ‘successful’ if they keep investing in infrastructures of violence.

Governmental sanctions to regulate the market is a way for activists, NGOs and regular concerned citizens to demand social and economic justice over financial greed. Laws are changing and making corporations more bound to respect socio-environmental values that are set out in the protection of universal human rights. A recent lawsuit against Shell by Millieudefensie is a historic win for future climate legislation, the Dutch court awarded a major legal victory to NGOs and Dutch citizens, ordering oil giant Shell to drastically cut its greenhouse gas emissions.

“It asserts that companies have an individual responsibility to combat climate change throughout their value chains, and it very clearly links climate change to human rights. This means the judgement is likely to play an important role in the realisation of mandatory due diligence legislation.” 🌎️

Accountability is also about ‘holding’ space for victims and perpetrators alike, holding critical but forward-thinking, non-judgemental space to allow truth to be heard and confrontation to take place. Loretta J Ross a reproductive justice advocate talks about a new movement to replace cancel culture, a method of ‘Calling-in’. She is seeing a great danger of how the youth calling-out and cancel each other on social media platforms, instead of recognising and respecting the contradiction and mistakes in each other. Calling-in is a way to invite people who we do not agree with into a dialogue, instead of public shaming. “Calling out is not an invitation for growth, that is an expectation that you have already grown.” 🌎️ What if we acknowledge that everyone can make mistakes, and everyone is as complicated and complex as we are, then we are reaffirming a positive attitude, a compassionate way to hold someone accountable with love. It is not instead of calling out. It sits beside it. Sometimes we need to close doors.

Rescue workers take part in the rescue of the eight-storey building Rana Plaza which collapsed at Savar, outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, 25 April 2013. Rescuers recovered at least 187 bodies from the rubble of the collapsed building that housed mostly garment factories, officials said. Many more were still trapped in the remains of the building, which also contained shops and offices, and the army had been called in to help with rescue operations, police said. More than 1000 people were injured, Ruhul Forkan, an assistant director of the Health Ministry, told reports at the accident site. Many of them were rushed to hospitals in Savar and Dhaka, he added. Local people rescued more than 100 garment workers. EPA/ABIR ABDULLAH

Essay written by Marton Kabai

I want to thank Godelieve Spaas and Rynko van Diepen for the many inspiring talks and the undoubtful determination that only through truth-telling we can work towards a just society. However truth-telling is a dangerous, uncomfortable and confrontational, but if its done well it can be healing and transformative.

© Márton Kabai & Natela Lemondzhava