This fall, the American Psychological Association recognized psychology faculty member Ron Cohen for his “outstanding and unusual contributions to the science and profession of psychology.” This honor is bestowed only on those whose work has made “a national impact on the field of psychology.” During the past year Cohen was also elected a Fellow of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, and received the Society’s 2007 Undergraduate Teaching Award. Over the course of his career he has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute on Aging. For the last 19 years he has served as an Associate Editor of Social Justice Research, an international and interdisciplinary scholarly journal. In addition, his work has been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, Journal of Social and Personal Relations, Human Relations, and Human Rights Review. Since 1971 Cohen has taught at Bennington and has offered courses such as "Shhh: The Social Construction of Silence;" "(Re)Writing History: Historical Grievances and Retrospective Redress;" "Discourse, Deliberation, and Democracy;" "Conformity and Dissent," and "Trust and Distrust."
If you ask Cohen about his work, two words will drive what will be a rich and deeply intellectual conversation—justice and silence. Recently, he spoke about both.
Your scholarly interest in justice has spanned more than three decades. How has the study of justice in academic circles evolved, as you see it?
My major interest is in people’s everyday understandings of justice and injustice. Social science theory and empirical research on these issues has grown tremendously during this period, in psychology, sociology, politics, economics, and anthropology. This growth was spurred both by the tumultuous events of the 1960’s, and by the appearance of philosopher John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. Studying justice has also become much more important in professional schools—law schools, business schools, and medical schools—and in relationships between the social sciences and the humanities, most notably work on law and literature.
You teach courses on justice and silence. What are some examples of books that you use to help teach students about these issues?
One of the books I use is Troubling Confessions by a literary critic named Peter Brooks. It’s a study of the structure and practice of confession in religious settings, in legal settings, and in psychotherapeutic settings. Such confessional practices, and the controversies surrounding them, are related to justice and silence in obvious ways. I also use Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power by the political theorist Fred Alford Whistleblowers seem the prototypic silence-breakers, and though they are publicly celebrated as heroes, their lives are hell. Many lose their jobs, their friends, and their families. In order for them to tell their own stories, and for us to hear them, we would need to forsake many of our fundamental beliefs: “that the individual matters, that law and justice can be relied upon,” and that the purpose of law is to remove the caprice of powerful individuals.”
How do approach teaching a topic like silence?
A basic principle of Gestalt psychology’s approach to perception is the figure/ground relationship. In confronting any sensory array—visual, auditory—certain aspects of the array emerge as the focus of attention, while other aspects recede into the background. We typically think about (auditory) silence as the ground from which sounds, words, and language emerge. As a result, these things are called to and occupy our attention, both in everyday life and in scholarly work. The issues that tend to be addressed are, for example, how human beings learn to speak. What I suggest to students is that we reverse the typical figure/ground relationship and examine talk (including the babbling, cooing, and crying of infants) as the background from which silence emerges. Rather than assuming that talk emerges out of silence, the suggestion is that silence emerges from talk. At the beginning of the course I ask students to keep a journal of noticeable silences and how they are produced, maintained, and broken. We go on to examine the silences that sustain speaking and conversation (e.g., pauses within a turn at talk, silence as people exchange turns at talk, and how we are able to discern the difference), as well as “topical” silences.
You’ve talked about the elephant in the room phenomenon. Will you explain this?
The “elephant in the room” is the object or issue everyone recognizes, but must not be acknowledged, and therefore is not mentioned. This is a wonderfully complex but fragile achievement, because it requires that everyone be aware of what it is that must not be mentioned, and agree without expressing their agreement that it not be mentioned. Sometimes, of course, we explicate this agreement, as when we agree not to talk about matters that some of us might find discomforting or offensive. However, it is important to try to understand how we do this silently, i.e., without speaking. When there’s an elephant in the room, we engage in collective denial.
Do you see evidence of any elephants in our culture right now that you’d like to speak about?
We’re the richest nation in the world, but many people, often children, lack basic necessities such as food, shelter, clothing, and care. It’s very uncomfortable to talk about—if this is the case, why aren’t we at the local food bank, or homeless shelter, making sure that people don’t go hungry? Every so often these issues emerge from the (back) ground and capture our attention, but for the most part they remain elephants in the room. The facts of inequality and unaddressed basic needs raise the issue of class, one rarely raised in public discourse in a serious and sustained way. When it is raised, those who do so are criticized for fomenting “class warfare,” for appealing to envy and hate. In such a context, the risks in “speaking up” become quite clear, and a powerful “conspiracy of silence” is sustained. Issues no longer appear (to be) “on the agenda,” and even periodic attempts to re-introduce them produce heavy sanctions. It will be interesting to see whether, and if so, in what ways, the issue of class becomes a matter of public discourse as we approach the 2008 election, and the attempts that will be made to relegate it to the category of issues good people don’t discuss in public.