The Cost of Silence

(This is an essay for a class, but I really, really like it.  And it’s been so long since I posted a blog…)

What happens to a society where the artists, writers, and thinkers fall silent?  What changes when necessity and fear get in the way of civil engagement?  What if all of the greatest minds of this age are working two jobs to keep food on the table, falling asleep to reruns of last year’s sitcoms, and posting memes on Facebook instead of speaking out?  Could it be that society is slowly deprogramming the electorate’s ability to create and dissent, replacing it with social pressures, mindless entertainment, exhaustion and fear?  The grinding pressure of the current economy is undeniably closing the door to art houses and niche publishers, artists are hanging up their brushes and writers are putting down their pens to pick up extra hours at more traditional jobs, causing beauty and dissent to both end up marginalized as boutique businesses.  The necessity of surviving everyday life blinds us to the real cost of the changing landscape of our economy;  If America is to remain the bastion of thinkers, a melting pot brewing some of the greatest innovation and debate of our world, we will have to raise our voices.

“The act of writing is the act of making soul, alchemy,” Gloria Anzaldua writes in her essay Speaking in Tongues.  Anzaldua goes on to explain that without writing, women can lose sight of their inner self, their dark and poetic “other”, they can lose their soul.  By writing, a writer can keep the soul alive; the cost of silence is grave.  As Pulitzer Prize winning historian Leon Litwack said to a group of graduating students in 1987; “History teaches us that it is not the rebels or the dissidents who endanger society but rather the unthinking, the unquestioning, the obedient, the silent, and the indifferent…  The time to be alarmed about our students is not when they are exercising their freedom of expression but when they are quiet, when they despair of changing society, of even understanding it.”  These two great thinkers give two very different reasons for keeping our voices engaged:  the first reason is to feed our souls, and the second is to prevent the further decline of our society.  The stilling of our voices, from either perspective, leads to different but equally grave consequence.  In nature, there is never true stillness.  Everything in nature grows or dies, the saying goes.  What happens when the voices of a society are stilled?  As Martin Neimoeller said in his famous poem about not speaking out during Nazi rule, “then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew,” which culminates in the chilling final epitaph, “Then they came for me, and there was no one left, to speak out for me.”  Silence breeds death.  Words are necessary.  If we are not content to see society fall away, we shouldn’t be content to starve our own creativity.

“There is no need for words to fester in our mouths,” Anzaldua writes.  There is no reason to hold in our words, and every reason to let them loose.  When we allow ourselves to stagnate in indifference we lose so much more than just the things we may have otherwise said.  We lose ourselves, our sense of self, and our sense of purpose and truth.  Like Neimoeller, we lose our connection to the society we may one day depend on for our own salvation.  Even more, if we accept silence from ourselves we give away our ability to dissent.  When the Nazis came for Neimoeller how could he have protested for his own sake without being immediately confronted by the fact that he had defended no one else?  This is a truth that Anzaldua unflinchingly embraces, “What we do and what we say ultimately comes back to us, so let us own our own responsibility, place it in our own hands and carry it with dignity and strength.”  If it is true for what we say it is also true in the moments we are silent.  What we don’t do and what we don’t say ultimately comes back to us, as well.  We always have a choice; we can choose to speak.

If silence comes at such a grave cost, why do so many embrace it?  The reason seems obvious:  Fear.  The fear may be of violent repercussions.  In the wake of the September 11th attacks in the United States, many citizens silenced their disquiet about the Patriot Act out of a sense of duty paired with the intense fear that without sweeping legislation even worse attacks would occur.  Geraldine Perreault references this in an article about the need for dissent, saying, “How quickly people have been willing to give up many long-standing civil liberties and the right to know what their government is doing in their name. The aftermath demonstrates the ongoing necessity for thoughtful dissent as a civic responsibility of citizens in a democratic society.”  Fear may have also played a large role in the German citizenry’s silence during the Holocaust; if they spoke out to defend the Jews, what would happen?  But sometimes the fear is far more subtle. For instance, what happens when people disagree? When they laugh? When they simply ignore one’s words? Or perhaps the silence is motivated by one of the simplest, oldest terrors that anyone knows: the fear of change.  What do we change about ourselves by speaking, and what changes in other peoples perception of us? Such change may seem welcome, even exciting; or, it may seem far more dangerous than physical violence. Change can wound a soul in ways that cannot easily heal.

Silence often seems like the safest option, if not the noblest one.  Gloria Anzaldua states that writing is one of the most daring things she’s ever done, “and the most dangerous.”  Speaking up is indeed risky. Even if one is writing about nothing any more controversial than breakfast, there is a certain vulnerability present.  As Audre Lorde writes, “The transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger.”  But silence is also a treacherous choice; if we’re silent we stifle ourselves.  We cause the blooming tendrils of our soul to wither, wilt, and maybe even die.  We give free reign to the demons we wish to confront.  We kill the hope that we could bring more life and beauty to the world.  We strangle that part of ourselves that rails to be acknowledged.  We slowly start to die.  “For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition,” Audre Lorde writes, “and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”  But is it the silence that chokes us, or our choice to put the gag in our own mouths?

The only real option is to never accept silence, especially when we are at our most afraid.  “To write is to confront one’s demons, look them in the face and live to write about them.  Fear acts like a magnet; it draws the demons out of the closet and into the ink in our pens.”  We have to exorcise our demons.  There are times that it seems that our society is falling apart and losing itself.  Advertising, obesity, over-medication, falling literacy rates, wars, violence, pornography, media polarization, drugs and guns and sex; the list could go on forever.  And in all of this we still struggle with some very old woes.  Race, class, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, all of these things continue to divide people.  There is a sense of disquiet and injustice roiling beneath the surface of all national dialogue, ears still searching out the next strong voice to bring discontent to the forefront of our national consciousness and help us make sense of the pain people feel.  Who will be the next Martin Luther King Junior, Harvey Milk or Alice Paul?  We may never know, if citizens continue to accept silence from themselves.

The truth is that even if a person isn’t the next face of civil rights, they still have a story worth telling and an opinion that needs to be heard; if for no other reason than to release their own demons.  Writing and reading need to stop being seen as a hobby and start being viewed as a social necessity and obligation.  We live in a society that trades words like a commodity, where news is 24 hours and on demand, and only the most scintillating tales get real play.  Reading and writing are treated like luxuries, or as the hobbies of nerds and know-it-alls.  Even worse, only those words which people most want to hear ever seem to be spoken very loudly.  We shy away from truths we find discomfiting.  How can a society like that survive?

Hubert Humphrey is quoted as saying, “Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent, and debate.”  Today’s society hardly leaves breathing room for discussion and dissent.  Adults work forty hours a week while children spend 30 hours a week at school not counting bus rides, or walking home, or even homework.  The New York Times reports that the average American spends 2 to 3 hours an evening on television.  That’s an addition 14-21 hours a week.  When, then, once household chores, meals, weekly shopping trips and social obligations are met is there any time left over for thinking?  Ghandi said, “In the attitude of silence, the soul finds the path in clear light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness.  Our life is a long arduous quest after Truth, and the Soul requires inward restfulness to attain its full height.”  Yet the demands of society leave little room for restfulness, and the jam-packed pace of the average American’s day doesn’t yield much time for silence and light.  The light that colors most American evenings is the blue glow of a widescreen, and solitude is often peppered with voices from the television and radio, not silence.  The dissent that America needs to function as a democracy is isolated into 150 characters or less on Twitter, or blasted out on Facebook status updates.  

Facebook, Twitter, and the widescreen TV are not to blame for the ills of society.  They are simply a reflection of our problem, not the cause.  John Taylor Gatto, in his emblematic essay about the problem with today’s children, writes, “Think of the things that are killing us as a nation – narcotic drugs, brainless competition, recreational sex, the pornography of violence, gambling, alcohol, and the worst pornography of all – lives devoted to buying things, accumulation as a philosophy – all of them are addictions of dependent personalities, and that is what our brand of schooling must inevitably produce.”  Why?  Because children, who are born learning actively through play, at some point must be taught to learn passively:  Sitting at a desk and repeating what they are told.  Gatto describes this construct as “absurd.”  It is.  The next great leader cannot be made by segmenting his or her life into 45 minute periods during which thought is turned on and off by command.  The next great leader won’t be encouraged by having his or her ability to think critically graded on a smaller scale than his or her ability to repeat what a teacher wants to hear.  A leader, such as what this country desperately needs, certainly isn’t going to be born out of demanding school- and work-days that end in evenings spent with TV and Twitter, and barely any time left for reflection.  What do such things produce?  Not thinkers:  Consumers.

To produce a nation of thinkers, a nation of dissenters and debaters, priorities need to shift.  Each individual needs to make the decision to turn off the TV, if need be.  And parents, knowing that schools cannot be depended on to encourage active thought, need to take their child’s future into their own hands.  How?  Treating reading and writing like another aspect of life instead of a luxury, for a start.  Kurt Vonnegut, the renowned author, said, “I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well.”  By fostering reading and writing skills we not only provide the solitude and silence necessary to spark thought, but also the fuel necessary to feed it.  In order to utilize space for reading and writing in our lives, we also need to give up the idea that such space doesn’t already exist.  Anzaldua confronts that idea that we need to make room for writing brashly, “Forget the room of one’s own- write in the kitchen, lock yourself up in the bathroom.  Write on the bus or the welfare line, on the job or during meals, between sleeping or waking.  I write while sitting on the john.”  Neither can we hold our breaths until the right time to read, write, and speak presents itself.  We have to make the best of the time we have right now.  This is the right moment to stop listening to fear, to stop accepting passivity, and to do what we can to exercise our minds and right to speak.  We can inform our society rather than be victims of it, if we lift the gags from our mouths.  We must.

19 thoughts on “The Cost of Silence

  1. When I originally commented I appear to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on whenever a comment is added I recieve 4 emails with the exact same comment. Is there a way you can remove me from that service? Thank you!

  2. I wish I could remember where I read this but, some time ago I read what contributes to our lessening social engagement. The idea was that when most people would take public transit (pre-wifi, pre-smart phone, pre-mp3 player, pre-laptop) the environment itself led each to interact directly with their fellow man. I always think about that as I am tempted to lock the world out of my personal sphere.

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