When Discipline Becomes Silence

Discipline loses its value if we are to be silenced in the process.

Love, respect, and discipline. Those three values have been instilled in me from a very young age. Growing up in American Samoa, I was taught that love should color every aspect of life as I was constantly surrounded by the laughter and joy of my siblings, parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, and cousins. I was taught to carry respect everywhere I went, whether it was for my family and peers or for the earth I walked on or the ocean I swam in. And I was taught to have discipline through the ways my cousins and I were to obediently serve our elders and our families at every toana’i, fa’alavelave, and other family functions.

Since being at Harvard, there have been many times where I’ve felt inadequate and have had to draw on these values for strength and perseverance. Love has helped me to remain patient with myself and my mistakes. Respect has helped me to maintain confidence in my ability to achieve. But discipline — that is the value that has often fallen short of helping me. In fact, the value of discipline, as I had learned it back home, has often pushed me towards silence.

In American Samoa, as well as other Pacific cultures, one of the first things every child must learn is discipline. We learn discipline at home, as we are given responsibilities around the house and over our younger siblings from an early age. We learn discipline at school, as we are not to question what we are taught. And we learn discipline in our villages, as we are taught to serve our communities in any capacity that we can. Having been raised in this way, I’ve gained many valuable qualities, such as self-accountability and reliability, as well as how to be a good listener. I’ve been able to employ these qualities in my academic, extracurricular, and social life here on campus.

However, while I appreciate the qualities that I have gained, I cannot ignore one of the main things that I was taught from this value of discipline — silence. At home, we are taught to quietly obey our parents and never complain, regardless of any personal struggle we might be facing. At school, we are not encouraged to critically engage with our material and question what we are being taught. And in our villages, it is taboo to call out or vocally challenge our authority figures. Any of these actions would constitute a deep disrespect and unappreciation of our families, our schools, our institutions, and our community.

The value placed on this respect and appreciation, especially for our families and communities, is easily understandable since they continually give and sacrifice so much for us every day. And in return for all that they sacrifice, it makes sense that our silent, unquestioning discipline is the least we could give back to them. But this silent discipline hurts us more than it helps us.


The silence that accompanies this discipline does not allow us to express or speak out about what we might be dealing or struggling with. Because we are expected to be silent and obedient, we are not allowed to have problems. We are not allowed to struggle. According to a 2008 New Zealand Ministry of Health report, 46.5 percent of surveyed Pacific people had experienced some type of mental disorder at some point in their lives — including depression, mood disorders, and anxiety disorders. Although there are a lot of factors that go into this statistic, this culture of silent discipline only worsens the problem and has lasting effects. In fact, even today, I still find it difficult confiding in my friends, family, professors, and advisors when I am struggling because I have been conditioned to stay silent.

This silence also does not allow us to critically engage with, question, and challenge things that we might disagree with. Protesting is quite uncommon (though it has become a bit more common as of late) and looked down upon as a disrespect of our elders and authority figures. In fact, I had never seen a protest in my life until my junior year of high school, when members of the American Samoa legislature tried to raise their salaries instead of allocating that money to much needed improvements in education or healthcare. After a large group of teachers, students, and other professionals protested outside of the Fono building, President Gaoteote Togafau Palaie said the Fono does not work according to the wishes of "people who roam the streets and take their issues to the media", effectively criticizing the protestors for exercising their right to protest. We see that the subtle invocation of the value of discipline is often used to condemn and silence our voices.

This silencing goes even beyond questioning things that are only happening within our local communities. It extends to the classroom, where we are not empowered to challenge what we are being taught but instead encouraged to take it as law. But, we must not feel the pressure of silence when we disagree with Western thought and philosophy that places itself above the valuable knowledge that our societies produce. Having been raised in a tradition of silent discipline, one of the biggest things that I struggled with when I got to Harvard was being able to challenge what I was learning in class. I was taught to silently appreciate what was given to me, not challenge it. So when I read a lot of Western theory, though I may have had my qualms about some of its racist and sexist undertones, I did not think it was my place to question or challenge it.

But it is our place. It is our place to speak, whether it’s about what we are struggling with or what we don’t agree with. Having respect, discipline, and appreciation in everything we do is not mutually exclusive with speaking up. If we truly want to respect and appreciate our families, our institutions, and our communities, we should not be silent. We should speak up, so that we can eventually have productive conversations and work together towards a more accepting, communicative community.

Gabrielle T. Langkilde ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Sociology and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.