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Cracks in the Culture of Silence

by Andy Tamas Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024 at 5:57 PM

One of the more tragic elements of the culture of silence is that the dominated often internalize the oppressor – they become their own dominators, and behave toward themselves and each other much as the oppressor behaves toward them. This internalization is often created and maintained by the education system that is controlled by the elite.

Cracks in the Culture of Silence – and Beyond

Adapted from Paulo Freire and others

by Andy Tamas

[This study posted on 9/11/2015 is available on the Internet,]


The writings of Brazilian adult educator Paulo Freire (1921-1997) exert considerable

influence on social development theory and practice. This is a brief and partial

adaptation of some of his work, focusing on the transition from what he called

“structures of domination” toward what some other authors, such as Riane Eisler, call

“the partnership way” – a social structure which does not have a dominator-

dominated relationship among its various groups. The work helps to understand the

conditions of populations in societies that are at various points along this trajectory.

Freire thought that there were two types of education – that it was either for liberation

or domestication, and that the former helped people critically analyze and change the

power structures in which they lived, while the latter did not. In societies where

Freire-influenced “conscientization” literacy campaigns took place (such as Chile

before the election of the Allende regime) the masses learned about their structures of

domination, and sought to become more fully involved in determining the direction of

the society – they acquired voice and wanted to make changes in their social

structures. This was one step in the process of changing the society’s power structure.

There are several stages in this transition, which can be described as the “culture of

silence,” a complex “transitive” stage, and finally, “partnership” or integration.

Culture of Silence

In extreme dominator-dominated social structures, such as in some Latin American

societies in which he lived, Freire says that the dominated – the poor and powerless –

exist in a culture of silence. In these societies, there is an elite that determines the

course of the system (they have voice), while there is a mass that does not. They do

not have voice in terms of contributing to the society’s direction, and hence live in a

culture of silence. There is a one-way flow of influence across the boundary between

the elite and the mass, with the elite exerting influence on the mass, but not vice-

versa. This is termed “inauthentic” communication, in that it serves to maintain the

distinction between the elite and the mass, rather than recognize their common


In the culture of silence the dominated cannot exercise their natural desire to exert

influence on the direction of the society, and hence this energy is released within the

mass itself, contributing to conflicts among the powerless. Examples are black-on-

black violence in the ghetto, cattiness among women in the secretarial pool, or

conflict among siblings in unhealthy over-controlled family contexts.

When members of the dominated class want to “get ahead” they tend to do so in terms

of the culture of the elite: they adopt their modes of dress and speech, drive their

kinds of cars, and acquire other trappings of success in the terms of the dominator

segment of society. However, as they do so they risk becoming alienated from other

members of their home culture, who tend to reject them as having changed and

become “too good” or “uppity” – perhaps as a defense mechanism to avoid

recognizing the reality of their own ghetto-like situation. This rejection contributes to

difficulties experienced by foreign-trained locals in developing countries who return

home with a desire to serve their people and find themselves the target of abuse and

facing barriers to becoming productively engaged in improving their society.

Achieving success in terms of attempting to enter the culture of the elite involves

identity change, emerging from a dominated culture. The natural tendency to

preserve the integrity of one’s own culture, or structure of meaning, can provoke

profound discomfort, in some case akin to the emotions linked to bereavement, where

there is a deep sense of loss of what was once familiar. This resistance to identity

change can in part account for puzzling phenomena such as the reluctance of women

to leave abusive relationships: at some level, possibly unconsciously, they may think

that is better to stay in the dominated trap they know than to leave and try to make

their way in the freedom they have never before experienced. In other situations

some members of the “underclass” who gain access to the elite sabotage their success

so they “go back to where they belong.” Examples abound in the military where the

promotions of non-commissioned officers go wrong so they are demoted to their

former rank where they are more comfortable.

One of the other characteristics of the culture of silence is that its artists tend to

portray an idealized or mythological state of the society, rather than its reality – their

paintings, for example, often are of a peaceful and noble past, not the poverty-stricken

or violent present.

One of the more tragic elements of the culture of silence is that the dominated often

internalize the oppressor – they become their own dominators, and behave toward

themselves and each other much as the oppressor behaves toward them. This

internalization is often created and maintained by the education system that is

controlled by the elite which portrays the social stratification as the natural order of

things. It is a convenient situation for the elite, in that the masses keep themselves

imprisoned in a powerless structure with internal conflicts that they themselves help

create and sustain.

Cracks in the Culture of Silence – Cultures in Transition

Freire uses the term “transitive” to describe social structures that are emerging from

the culture of silence. He has two sub-categories, one being “naïve transitive” and the

other being more solidly a transition toward a fundamental shift in the structure of

relationships between an elite and a powerless mass.

One of the key elements of this transition is that the members of the mass begin to

recognize their common situation and reduce the internal conflicts that keep them

from progressing. Examples include the “black is beautiful” movement in the US,

women’s liberation, and the Solidarity movement in Eastern Europe. Rather than

dissipating their energies on internal conflicts, the masses begin to speak with one

voice – their authentic voice, not the language of the elite that has served to maintain

the structures of domination.

Because they are speaking with one voice their communication can penetrate the one-

way boundary that separates the elite from the mass: the powerless begin to exert

themselves, in their own ways, and demand to have their say in defining the direction

of the society. A sign of this is that the artists begin portraying the society’s reality

rather than its mythology – they express what they see, and put it up for others to see

as well, regardless of how it is likely to be received. Some pay a heavy price for their

authentic artistic expression, but it is a signal that the society is in transition toward a

new order.

This penetration by the unified voices of the mass produces cracks in the culture of

silence which threaten the integrity of the structure of domination. The elite respond

by doing what they can to re-impose the culture of silence. They bring the tanks into

Tiananmen Square, in Chile the Pinochet regime kills Allende, in Mexico

demonstrating students are massacred before the 1968 Olympics, and in many

societies civil society activists and union representatives are muzzled. The elite does

what it can to keep the power structures in place.

However, once a mass becomes relatively unified and begins to have a sense of its

common condition, its movement toward a new power structure is inexorable. The

transition is no longer naïve. It may be slowed down, but cannot be stopped, and

sooner or later new structures emerge. Chile elected as its President the daughter of a

victim of Pinochet’s torture machine, social media unified middle eastern youth to

produce the Arab Spring and sweep away seemingly permanent regimes, and the

Green and Orange revolutions in Iran and the Ukraine have demonstrated their

determination to change their societies.

The transition can be chaotic and there may be reversals, and in some situations the

process can be hijacked by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and

Putin and his ex-KGB cohorts in Russia and Eastern Europe, who take advantage of

the instability and fragility of the emerging order to install new structures of

domination. However, once a powerless mass has had a taste of freedom and has

glimpsed the reality of authentic participation in influencing the course of its social

system, it is never the same. The women and men who collaborated in Tahrir Square

in Egypt’s Arab Spring are unlikely to forget that experience, even in the face of the

rampant sexual violence that emerged following that golden time, and will demand

the society addresses issues that were formerly not part of everyday social discourse.

The culture of silence may be re-imposed, but its days are numbered.

Toward Authentic Partnership

Paulo Freire’s analysis of power structures seems to stop somewhere in the transitive

phase, perhaps because he saw few examples that extended beyond that point in

transformation of social relationships. Riane Eisler’s work on The Partnership Way

points to social structures that do not have a dominator-dominated dynamic. Her

historical research identified ancient societies, such as in Minoa, where there was

equality between men and women, with a flourishing civilization as a result. Also,

there is evidence from the corporate world that collaboration rather than conflict

between labor and business owners, such as in Germany, produces significant

benefits. Norway’s experience in forcing its corporations to balance gender on their

boards of directors has proven the benefits of authentic partnerships in business.

Societies that value diversity, and work teams that seek out the views of previously-

silent members have proven to be more productive than systems controlled by elites

who do not fully engage the marginalized in their affairs. Although it is difficult to

achieve, authentic partnership, where all have voice, produces benefits at all levels.

Integration – the Challenge

One can say there are three kinds of power structures in inter-group relationships:

accommodation, assimilation and integration, each with its own types of influences

and changes in the groups involved.

In accommodation the groups coexist, often with some interaction at their boundaries,

but there is relatively little inter-group influence or change required within each group.

An example could be a relatively closed and self-sufficient ethnic or cultural enclave

in a larger society, such as some Hutterite communities in North America.

In assimilation there is an interaction of two groups of unequal size or power. The

weaker group changes or loses something to be part of the relationship, while the

more powerful group is relatively unchanged. An example could be the so-called

“melting pot” in the US, where minorities are expected to give up their distinctive

characteristics to be part of the larger society. The weaker party loses something

while the more powerful party is relatively unchanged and imposes its ways on the

other. The unequal power relationship described earlier between the mass and the

elite in the culture of silence is in this category.

Integration implies that both parties give up something to form a new third entity that

combines the characteristics of both. This is the more equitable and sustainable

arrangement, but it is also the most difficult to achieve, largely because it requires

identity change on the part of the larger or stronger body, as well as in the weaker

entity, to form a real partnership. Members of powerful groups are not accustomed to

power being exercised by members of groups they previously dominated, and

members of weaker groups sometimes have difficulty authentically expressing

themselves in the presence of those to whom they traditionally gave way, and taking

on the responsibility that comes with acquiring power. However, when they are put

in a position where they are obliged to interact to achieve a common objective, such

as the situation in Norway where the government imposed a 50-50 gender quota on

corporations’ boards of directors, they soon develop new protocols which can draw on

the better characteristics of all parties. The key is realization that there is an

interdependent relationship, that each group needs the other to accomplish their goals.

The model can be described as “unity in diversity” – where the varied characteristics

of each group are valued and combined with the others to produce a better result than

any could achieve on their own. This integration is the ultimate destiny of power

relationships that start to change when there begin to be cracks in the culture of

silence, as indicated in the following painting by a courageous Afghan woman.

The concepts in this paper are integrated from a number of sources as well as from

my experience with management consulting, intercultural relations and international

development. The sources include:

Berry, J. W. (1992, June 29 - July 1). Acculturation and Adaptation in a New Society.

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Eisler, R., & Loye, D. (1990). The Partnership Way. San Francisco: Harper.

Eisler, R. (1987). The Chalice and the Blade. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Fisher, R., & Ury, W. (1981). Getting to Yes. New York: Penguin.

Freire, P. (1970). Cultural Action for Freedom. Cambridge: Harvard Educational


Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury.

Freire, P. (1973). Education for Critical Consciousness. New York: Seabury Press.

Goodenough, W. H. (1963). Cooperation in Change. New York: Russell Sage.

Grindle, M. (2007). Good Enough Governance Revisited. Development Policy Review,

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Hall, E. T. (1968). The Hidden Dimension. New York: Doubleday.

Marris, P. (1986). Loss and Change. London: Routeledge.

McCall, G., & Simmons, J. L. (1978). Identities and Interactions. New York: The

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North, D. C., Wallis, J. J., Webb, S. B., & Weingast, B. R. (2007). Limited Access

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Waters, H. J. (1994). Decision Making and Race. International Journal of

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