Muriel Rukeyeser, poet and political activist said “If one woman told the truth about her life, the world would split open.” Time Magazine has recognized the world splitting open.

“For giving voice to open secrets, for moving whisper networks onto social networks, for pushing us all to stop accepting the unacceptable, the Silence Breakers are the 2017 Person of the Year.”

When The Salt Lake Tribune tweeted the news about the Silence Breakers being named as Person(s) of the Year, Utah state Sen. Lincoln Fillmore responded with “Why is this news?”

Here’s why.

In the mid-1970’s, social anthropologist Edwin Ardener noted that fellow anthropologists claimed they had “cracked the code” of a society they had been studying without actually talking to any women of that society or culture. Ardener pointed out that the “high status groups of a culture largely determine the communication system of that culture. At the same time, subordinate groups in the society are rendered inarticulate.” In other words, they were silenced. Muted.

Ardener and his wife, fellow Oxford researcher Shirley Ardennes, came to realize that the group or groups were silenced not because they lacked language but because they lacked power.

Now recognized in the field of communication, muted group theory holds that people belonging to anything but the dominant class are disadvantaged (muted) when communicating, either orally or in written form. Power, therefore, belongs to those who control communication.

Since the Silence Breakers are speaking up about sexual misconduct, let’s look at that through the lens of language for a minute. When describing men who are “sexually loose,” one study found 22 gender-related words, including several that could be considered positive: playboy, stud, Don Juan and heartbreaker. There are more than 200 negative words to describe women who have multiple sexual partners. The word — and maybe even the concept — of sexual harassment has only been around since the 1970’s.

So why is it hard to speak up?

Researcher Dr. Cheris Kramarae explained what happens when people in the subordinate group try to speak up. It’s not that they don’t have a lot to say, she said, it’s that they have “relatively little power to say it without getting into a lot of trouble. Their speech is disrespected by those in the dominant positions; their knowledge is not considered sufficient for public decision-making or policy making processes of that culture; their experiences are interpreted for them by others; and they are encouraged to see themselves as represented in the dominant discourse.

Did you catch that? Other people, people in positions of power, tell “the little people” what their experiences are and how they should feel about them. Or even that their experiences did not happen.

Why is it hard to speak up?

Over and over and over, we see the retribution meted out against women and men who do. Professional careers crushed, like Lauren Greene who filed a complaint against Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas. As a result, she has been so blackballed that now her income consists of babysitting jobs and temp gigs back in her home state of South Carolina. Or the threats of bodily harm like the one made to Selma Blair in Hollywood. I mean, who wants their eyeballs gouged out with a Bic pen?

Why is it hard to speak up?

Because our society seems conditioned to believe the person or people in power, rather than the person or people being victimized. It does not seem to matter if the power is held by virtue of elected office, wealth, job title or religious calling — when there is a power differential, our first response collectively is to believe the accused and not the accuser.

Why is it hard to speak up?

Because victims often feel isolated and their abusers like to keep it that way. There is power in numbers. There is solidarity in knowing that you are not the only one. And there is something powerful that happens when multiple voices join together. Maybe, just maybe those voices begin to be heard. Sometimes, it’s the collective experience, the collective voices, that begin to wake up those who finally hear them. It’s like little Jo-Jo in “Horton Hears a Who,” who climbed to the top of the Eiffelberg Tower and let out a “Yopp.”

“And that Yopp…

That one small, extra Yopp put it over!

Finally, at last! From that speck on that clover

Their voices were heard!

So why is it news that the Silence Breakers are the persons of the year? Because it matters that voices that have been muted for far too long are finally being heard. And, even more importantly, they are being believed. It matters that sexual misconduct that has been laughed off and brushed aside is now being taken seriously by some. It matters to those who continue to be victimized and silenced to see that maybe there is hope that one day, they too will be believed. It matters.

Holly Richardson | The Salt Lake Tribune

Holly Richardson, a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune, applauds the Silence Breakers and is both moved and disturbed by the nature and the number of their stories. She is grateful for the many who believe the victims. Thank you. Finally, she loves, loves, loves seeing the unmuting taking place. About time.