Eviatar Zerubavel has been writing for years about the hidden, and often unquestioned, patterns in everyday life, like the seven day week and collective memory. In his latest book Elephant in the Room: The Social Organization of Silence and Denial he tackles the “conspiracies of silence” that lead to “open secrets” among families, companies and societies – often to disastrous effect. For instance, he looks at the role denail played in allowing atrocities like the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide to claim millions of lives and its role in our own recent history with the Lewinsky scandal and the Bush administration’s unrelenting insistence upon the presence of WMD in Iraq. Zerubavel also looks at the effect of institutional forms of denial like the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the American military and more domestic cases of denial that arise around a loved one who is ill or suffering from addiction.
We had the chance to ask Dr. Zerubavel some questions earlier this spring and we are pleased to bring you that conversation here.
Q. How did you come to write this book?
I grew up in a home where every single room had some obvious yet nevertheless unmentionable “elephant” hidden in it in plain sight. My fascination with conspiracies of silence was further triggered by hearing accounts of incest survivors whose tragic past is still shrouded in silence evidently quite convenient for their families yet extremely harmful for their own well-being. And I have also been continually intrigued by the role of shame and fear in generating the so-called open secrets around which such conspiracies typically revolve at the level of organizations as well as entire nations.
Q. In your opinion has this silence and denial of “open secrets” become more prevalent in recent years? If so, why?
Recently unveiled cases such as the alarming magnitude of the AIDS epidemic and the rampant child sex abuse scandal in the Church have certainly made us much more ready to accept more open discourse around unmentionables and undiscussables. This may have also increased our readiness to address other unspeakables such as racism, poverty, and the wide prevalence of drug addiction. Our willingness to break the silence surrounding “open” secrets has also been inspired by recent unveilings of ordinary ones, from Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair, through the sexual assaults at the Air Force Academy and the Citadel, to the Abu Ghraib and Enron scandals.
Q. Who are examples of modern day “silence breakers”?
Some classic examples are Betty Friedan, whose Feminine Mystique helped break the conspiracy of silence surrounding the happily-fulfilled housewife; the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who helped expose the atrocities of the “Dirty War” in Argentina; Bill Maher and his provocative, in-your-face television show Politically Incorrect; and Ted Koppel reading aloud on Nightline the names of (and thereby foregrounding) the officially-backgrounded American casualties of the Iraq war. They all did that by explicitly acknowledging the presence of “elephants” hitherto hidden in plain sight.
Q. Do you think there are times when we, as a nation, are better off not knowing the truth?
I would have to answer this question with a resounding “No.” We would have probably been spared some of the horrors of the Gulag or the Holocaust had nations not pretended not to notice what was quite clearly happening in their midst. At the level of the nation I cannot see how anything can ever be gained in the long run by collectively denying some problematic situation. And as the current AIDS epidemic and the alarming prevalence of incest and other forms of domestic violence make rather clear, we certainly pay a heavy psychological, social, as well as moral price for doing so.
Eviatar Zerubavel is professor of sociology at Rutgers University and author of Elephant in the Room: The Social Organization of Silence and Denial.