He wonders about the ways in which people can be made to feel unworthy. The first thing he thinks is that he doesn’t like that word: unworthy. It doesn’t really seem to capture the core of the feeling he’s trying to explore. Would ‘non-worthy’ be better? Or ‘non-worthwhile’?
What he’s trying to get at is a sense of a lack of value. Valuelessness. But in a deeply personal way. A word that would somehow capture: ‘it’s simply not okay for you to be you, because there is nothing in you or about you that is of value’. Is there a word for that, he wonders.
But okay, so he doesn’t have quite the right word. Never mind. He has the feeling – he knows exactly what it’s like – and that’s the main thing that matters in this situation.
So… what are the different ways in which people can be made to feel unworthy, in that very personal, very ‘value-stripping’ way?
He knows there are many ways, but at the moment he’s thinking particularly about the voice. The human voice. One’s own personal voice. One of the most identifiable, unique, immutable aspects of ourselves. Arguably more important than the appearance of our face. Because the voice can be experienced at a distance. Because it can be experienced in the dark. Because it remains the same for so long. Because it’s a direct channel to our mind and our heart. Because it has such power. Because it’s missed so much when it’s no longer with us. “If only I could hear her voice one more time. Just one more time.”
So the voice is important. Fundamentally important. As important as the extent to which the word ‘important’ is overused. There can be no denying the importance of the voice. In the same way that there can be no denying the importance of denying a voice.
And then he thinks about this. What does it say about a situation – what does it say about the people in the situation – that the person in the position of weakness actually makes a conscious decision to change the way they sound because they’re frightened of the reaction they might get from the people in authority.
A voice isn’t just composed of the quality of the voice. It isn’t just the timbre, the pitch. That’s a huge part of it, of course, but this phenomenon we call the voice – this identity-bearer – is also concerned with how we pronounce words. How we construct sentences. How we control the rhythms of our utterances. That’s as much a part of our identity as any other aspect of the voice.
There’s now evidence to suggest that babies from different parts of the world cry with subtly different rhythms. Rhythms that tie in with those of their mother tongue. Rhythms that they must have picked up while they were still in the womb. Our voice being shaped before we are born.
Children of expat families – when they return ‘home’ for the summer – are so often told that they sound different. Different, of course, meaning ‘not right’. Different because they now pronounce words differently. Or maybe they even use different words.
So if the person in a position of weakness makes a conscious decision to change the way they say certain words – to change the rhythms of their utterances, to change the places in which the tone ascends or descends or pauses for effect – because they’re frightened of the reaction they might get from the people in a position of authority, what does this say about the situation? What timbre and pitch and rhythm does it give it to it?
It says many things, of course. And it says something about everyone who is part of the situation. It says as much about the people in authority as it does about the weaklings.
And one of the things it says – one of the most lasting things, in the voice of the people in authority, of course – is this. “We have no interest in knowing who you are. We have no interest in discovering how your ‘you-ness’, how your uniqueness, might manifest itself in your voice. We have no interest in finding out how you might turn out to be different from us. And the reason we have no interest is because there is nothing in your ‘you-ness’ that could possibly be of interest. There is nothing of value in it. There is nothing of worth. There is nothing to which we ought to assign any individuality, any identity. In fact, nothing is all there is. A nullity. A void. That is all you are. An absence.”
So this is how the person in the position of weakness has to operate. As a void.
How do you tuck yourself under a shadow? How do you hide behind an absence? How do you walk into a room so that the effect you create is not that someone has entered, but that someone has left?
There are ways. He learned them. Over years and years. He became quite skilled. Because even being valueless is something at which one can become quite adept.
There are many ways to make people feel valueless. But this one… this one has some force. This one is a real disruptor. And its effects never quite go away, always lingering in the background, always making themselves known when someone or something attempts to break a pattern. Always managing to make itself heard. Like… what else? Like a voice.