What Does Silence Say?

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By Amy Endres

There had never once been a public opinion poll done in El Salvador until Ignacio Martín-Baró, a Jesuit, set out as the only doctoral-level psychologist in the country to measure the opinion of the people in the 1980s.[1]  He knew this would be difficult.  He had studied at the University of Chicago, and he was certain that he would need to practice very differently than how he had been trained.  But he had still been unprepared for just how difficult it would be.

Much of Martín-Baró’s early conclusions were made on the fact that very few people would speak to him.  Only 40% percent of the rich felt safe enough to speak their opinion.  And the poor? Less than 20% of the poor would do the speak to him.[2]  Less than 20% would speak to him about their lives, what they thought of the government, or anything that could get back to someone who could hurt them.

In his case, silence stood for more than an inconvenience to answer a pollster.  It stood for more than a passive distrust of someone collecting data.  In his case, silence told a story of gripping fear, of generations of pain, of mothers mourning children slain by an oppressive and violent government.

Silence says a lot, and it’s important that researchers take that silence into account.

I do not present my essay from El Salvador, though, much less an El Salvador in the throes of civil war like my introduction remembers.  Instead, I present my essay from the United States.  Martín-Baró was attuned to the differences between the countries.  He remarked to an American colleague once that, “In your country, it’s publish or perish. In mine, it’s publish and perish.”[3]  Indeed, Martín-Baró would later be killed, one of eight martyrs, in November of 1989.

I do not propose that he was mistaken.  He was an American-trained researcher after all; he would know the dynamics between the countries.  There is far more protection in the United States, particularly for the researchers today, than there was in Martín-Baró’s time and region.  However, I do want to turn my gaze to those who cannot freely speak their mind in the United States, and posit that researchers can (and, I argue, should) take on their behalf, if they are to act in the heroic way that Martín-Baró did.

What does silence say in the United States?

To keep with the theme of religious leaders like Martín-Baró, I look to the Los Angeles area today.  Since February 2017, there is an underground network of religious leaders who are readying their churches and synagogues and other places of worship to welcome undocumented immigrants who fear for their safety, families, and ultimately, their lives.[4]  How willing are these immigrants, shrouded in mystery and protection from the religious leaders, to share their opinion, to have any identifiable information attached to them, to speak to accredited researchers?  My guess would be that they are not so willing.  Their words will not be counted.  Their silence will have to tell their story

It is a well-known principle of research ethics that research which claims to be representative should not exclude any one demographic from its scope.[5]  If the research is meant to be public opinion, it should be the opinion of a truly representative sample, inclusive of many differing opinions to make a conclusion on what exactly is public opinion.

I fear that, right now, it is impossible.  Researchers who, for one example, would like to measure the experience and reception of immigrants into the country today, may not be able to count the words of the exact population they want to study.

Fear can fester when there is no information to counter the fear.  “Fear” is a popular, political buzzword right now.  There’s fear of the future, of the foreigner, of the freedoms that could be lost.  Researchers–good researchers–could turn this around.  Silence says a lot, but it cannot say enough.  It cannot argue with stereotypes.  It cannot present experiences to the contrary of belief.  It cannot decide policy or fight against it.  Something more is needed.

Public opinion research, as well as other kinds of research that seeks out truly representative samples, can provide this something more, if taking for its model someone like Martín-Baró.  Ethnography combined with the desire to glean a truly representative public opinion, though such practices present their own problems, can be helpful.  In marginalized and vulnerable populations, researchers have found value in such ethnography, in living among these populations to learn more about them than an outsider would.  Confidentiality is necessary, as is keeping an objective eye even when entering compassionately into a different world.[6]  An outsider hears only silence, and while I have already said that there is value in measuring such a loud silence, it is not enough, heralding the importance of such ethnographic research.  I believe that researchers can allow silence to speak more than it has before.  To articulate itself where it has only been absent.

But this is a challenge.

Researchers must make a very difficult choice if so undertaking that challenge.  The religious leaders of the underground network have been publicly named lawbreakers.  Ignacio Martín-Baró himself was martyred.  I do not suggest it will go that far, but I do want to place researchers in a powerful, impactful role because that is where they belong.

Martín-Baró tapped into the difference that existed between Salvadorian and American public opinion research when he made the distinction between publishing and perishing.  In the United States, public opinion research seems to be values-free.  It is neutral.  It is only an opinion presented in an objective report.  Accordingly, research is largely protected.  Those opinions, however, take on new color when paired with more controversial demographic questions in the examples that I raise.   Should a population like undocumented immigrants be allowed a voice in research that concerns them?  Are they part of a true American public opinion?  How do their voices change American public opinion?

These are the questions that I believe need to be asked.  Perhaps I am not the best one to ask them; I am no psychologist after all.  With my schoolwork and work experience, I’m closer to a theologian. Even that label seems much too big for me.

Still, when I see that religious leaders are preparing to stand against injustice, even laws that they find unjust, I see them reaching beyond the obvious boundaries that exist for their line of work.  They are reacting to policies targeting vulnerable populations, silencing those who are just as much a part of the culture as those who have the right documents that say they can remain in this country safely.  I see myself called beyond my own boundaries as a student of theology.  Likewise, researchers may believe that the value of their work lies in its neutrality, considering the scarcity of such neutrality in public spaces of the United States today. I want to press that, however, and wonder if this may be the time to see bigger purposes in each line of work. Research, particularly public opinion research, must look to the otherwise silent. The justice possible in research lies in this endeavor, not to mention the possibility of furthering injustice when ignoring the possibility to lift up the silent.

I am not cynical about where my country stands.  I am optimistic.  I think I must be in order to do the work I want to do, the work I talk about here.  When there is a choice to increase justice, to lend a voice to the marginalized and silent, the option should be taken.  Even in an otherwise neutral position like a public opinion researcher in the United States, there is an option for justice.

When voices can emerge from silence, then it is really saying something.

Amy Endres ’17, a graduate of  Fordham College Rose Hill, majored in Theological Religious Studies and was awarded second place in the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education 2017 Dr. K. York and M. Noelle Chynn Undergraduate Essay Prize in Ethics and Morality.

[1] Adrianne Aron and Shawn Corne, Introduction to Writings for a liberation psychology. (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass. : 1994), 9.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid., 2.

[4]  Kyung Lah, Alberto Moya and Mallory Simon, “Underground network readies homes to hide undocumented immigrants,” CNN, February 26, 2017. (http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/23/us/california-immigrant-safe-houses/).

[5] National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research (1979).  The Belmont Report: Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects in Research. 9.

[6] National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research (1979).  The Belmont Report: Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects in Research.4

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