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Thursday, June 23, 2016

“We Didn’t Know”: Silence and Silencing in Organizations

Nina K. Thomas
International Journal of Group Psychotherapy 


This article examines the dynamic processes within organizations that contribute to systemic silence and silencing and the “we didn’t know” defense, particularly for those groups in which secrecy replaces transparency to the detriment of the organization and its members. The events of the past more than 10 years within the American Psychological Association (APA) surrounding the role of psychologists in interrogation of detainees, including advising on and monitoring interrogations that have been construed as torture, will serve as a case example of the systemic forces that may contribute to leading an organization away from its principal mission. I explore how what was done was turned into its opposite. That is: “We are protecting psychologists by providing them with ethical guidelines in detention centers with detainees” became the explanatory rubric for a position that violated the association’s stated mission and exposed the organization and individual members to public shame. In addition, I explore how self-silencing becomes a way of adapting to a culture that censures dissent.


We didn't know" is the all too common legitimizing trope used to establish distance from disturbing events of a sociopsychological and political nature.  Is such a plea of ignorance consciously or unconsciously motivated lest the speaker be implicated in the acts being opposed?  "We didn't know" typically is invoked when a threat of shame, culpability, or punishment of a sort hangs in the balance.  It may be utilized when social service agencies fail to respond to negligent, abusive, or violent behavior toward those for whom they are responsible for care, or in instances of sexual abuse in military, academic, or religious institutions.  Examples also may be found in the justifications of neighbors of concentration camps during the Second World War, or corporate officers deaf to workers' complaints of malfeasance or corruption within an organization.  It is a widespread self- justificatory response to situations in which the individual might have known, even ought to or could have known what was going on, but for a variety of reasons turned away from knowing.

The article is here.