Opinion guest column


Leaders at MIT and beyond use covert methods to silence students, constituents, and community members

It may be contentious to define what good leadership is, but we can attempt to identify what it looks like. In the pursuit of understanding examples of good leadership, we can agree that employing tactics to silence the voices of those being led (although effective in limiting operational friction) is not particularly good. Yet we find it common for elected, appointed, and self-chosen leaders in the courts of schools, governments, and communities to silence the voices of students, constituents, and community members who offer different visions or priorities for the leadership. 

Sometimes leaders in power are keenly aware they are silencing the led; they do not shy away from it and tend to embrace silencing because it is easier than listening. Sometimes leaders are unaware they are silencing, and it is often because their good intentions blind them to the point of ignorance that mere individual action is futile against systemic practices and cultural habits. What becomes apparent through living is that if leadership (especially in American institutions) are not actively critiquing their approach to engagement with those that they lead, then the leadership will default to actions that are common in racist, sexist, and classist social structures — the silencing of voices with the aim of total and absolute compliance. Understanding the way silencing happens is paramount if we are to move toward unity, justice, and appreciation of the critical insights we all bring to bear in the advancement of the spaces we have been gifted to occupy.

I am not here to entertain the silencing that is done quickly and callously like banishment, censorship, and genocide. But what warrants me writing is the silencing that is seemingly more covert, the kind that happens like bricklaying: slow, methodical, and designed to keep troubling voices on the other side of its inevitably erected wall.

  1. If they catch your attention, acknowledge them. Invite them to meet at a table with some people who hold respectable titles like President, Vice President, Associate Dean, and so on and so forth. Do not let them know another table of power exists.

  2. Listen to them, but do not hear them. Write down what they say in the meeting, if you care to demonstrate your listening. Gain their trust.

  3. Distract them from the very reason they got your attention. Tell them what you are willing to do, but frame it as all you have the ability to do. Do not imagine you can do more, because imagination is relegated for children and dreams.

  4. Pacify their activism. Imply with language that their voice or collection of voices has accomplished their intended goal, especially if this language will reduce the level of attention-grabbing activism that led you to acknowledge them in the first place.

  5. Give yourself action items, but only if they are asking for them. Follow through on those deliverables. Reinforce their trust in you as someone who is on their side.

  6. Schedule more meetings with them no sooner than two to three weeks out. And only if they ask for them. And only if they ask with a certain level of seriousness and repetition.

  7. Do not think about your meeting with them until the day before or a couple days before. Refresh your mind so you are ready to engage again, but do not allow their activism to change your heart nor influence your priorities.

  8. If their ideas seem too big, deny your own ability to act on them. Say to yourself it is not worth your time or whatever you must to get on with your day. Do not realize that their approach to offering you ideas and potential solutions is a sign that they are helping you do your job.

  9. If satisfying their concerns does not jeopardize the foundation of your power and will pacify their activism, empower those ideas. If their ideas happen to jeopardize the foundation of your power and the work to modify those ideas would ultimately pacify their activism, then leave your power intact by modifying their ideas and empowering those changed ideas. Do not empower ideas you cannot comprehend, even if the basis for their argument is sound. Do not empower what will result in your loss of power and its transference to them.

  10. Treat them not as critical and necessary to understand, but as utility for your employment when helpful toward achieving your duties and responsibilities. Tell them their voices matter. Do not show them the magnitude of that power. Do not tell them that budgets are moral documents and that their contributions, whether material or intangible, are what make the entire school, government, or community work.

  11. Forget history before profit was the overwhelming motive. Forget education before the development of the student was its primary objective. Forget government before providing for the citizen was the ultimate consideration. Forget community before the sickness of individualism.

  12. Create committees, task forces, and plans that take months and years to delay courses of action. Say to those demanding change that this is how it must be done. Do not concede that there is a better way.

  13. If you do Steps 1–12 correctly, the people demanding to be heard, who want to have their concerns addressed and desire to have their ideas considered, will no longer be in the position to advocate either because they are not around to do so or you have been successful in the employment of silencing. Wait for the next disturbance, then go back to Step 1.

Kelvin Green II ’22 is a member of Chocolate City and the Rho Nu Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and the Assistant Officer on Diversity for the Undergraduate Association.