The Politics of Silence

The other day, I posted this tweet:

And a friend of mine posted this reply:

To which I made this immediate response:

But I think this deserves some further reflection, so here goes.

In the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, several activists launched a campaign to raise awareness of the need for greater research into the cause and treatment of AIDS. Their slogan:

“SILENCE = DEATH”

They subsequently joined forces with another group, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, or ACT UP, and that slogan became closely identified with ACT UP’s work on behalf of persons living with AIDS. Here is an image of the posters that became widely known, and associated both with ACT UP and with AIDS activism in general.

ACT UP "Silence = Death" poster, ca. 1987. Public domain.
ACT UP “Silence = Death” poster, ca. 1987. Public domain.

To a contemplative — even one who fully supported a robust public response to the AIDS crisis — this is a stark and challenging statement. After all, we find life in silence, not death.

Well, except for all those pesky bits about dying to self. So the more I think about it, the more I have to admit, well, yeah, silence does equal death. Only, that’s not always a bad thing.

But sometimes it is a bad thing, which is what the ACT UP initiative reminds us. Silence in the face of indifference to the suffering of others; that’s wrong. Silence that acquiesces to oppression: also wrong. As Madeleine Kuhn so beautifully put it, “Speak your mind even if your voice shakes.” In other words, don’t be silent in the face of oppression: speak up, no matter how frightening it might be.

So back to my initial response to Ali Lilly: we need more than one word for silence. Because I completely agree with her. And with Maggie Kuhn. And with ACT UP. Silence that is indifferent to suffering, or that yields to dominating power, is not contemplative silence at all. It is the silence of oppression — or of being oppressed. And I certainly agree that it would be irresponsible to promote the silence of oppression, not only now but at any time.

But that’s not the silence that Abbot Pastor was speaking about when he said “Any trial whatever that comes to you can be conquered by silence.” Abbot Pastor is advocating contemplative silence which is different from the silence of oppression.

What alarms me about Ali’s comment is that she appears to be saying that it is irresponsible even to promote contemplative silence because of the dangers of oppressive silence.

I think that is a mistake. To erase contemplation is also a form of oppression.

Political activists may become impatient with contemplatives; they see us as avoiding the necessary struggle or abdicating our responsibility to speak the truth when it needs to be spoken. I’m not saying Ali is doing this, but it is something I’ve encountered in the past, and her tweet reminds me of this.

But it is a fine line between criticizing contemplatives to prevent them from colluding with oppression, and insisting that contemplation itself is dangerous — which is simply oppression under a different form.

Silence is a necessary part of life. We need silence just like we need night-time and the land needs the season of winter. Silence is an essential aspect of rest, of sabbath time, of recreation and rejuvenation. It is a building block not only of religious life, but of leisure.

TIAVTDUWLSilence is necessary because it can shield us from the relentless drone of those in power. Those who have power want to do all the talking, and they want us to listen to nothing other than their voices. When we are silent, we are listening to our own hearts, and to the whisper of God in our soul. This is unacceptable to those who would like to dominate us. If we say that it is irresponsible to seek silence, then we are playing into the hands of those who wish to control our lives.

Silence is also necessary to give introverts and others whose minds operate slowly the space to think, to reflect, to access their own intuition. My guess is that many activists who are impatient with silence are often extraverts, who do not understand how important silence and the space to reflect is to those of us who are introverts.

So for these reasons I insist that it is just as irresponsible to try to erase silence, as it is to confuse the silence of contemplation with the silence of oppression.

We need more than one word for silence. We need to be vigilant to refuse to be silenced by those who would dominate us. And we also need to be vigilant to protect silence from the encroaching noise of a world where noise has been normalized, in the name of entertainment and profit. After all, the people who seek to control our lives are the same people who benefit the most from our consumer/entertainment culture. Which means, paradoxically, while they want to silence our voices, they also have no interest in us having access to contemplative silence.

The bottom line: contemplative silence is a very quiet act of resistance. It cannot be the only act of resistance, of course. But for many people, it is a necessary first step. Which is why it would be irresponsible for me not to promote silence as much as I can. And if anyone can’t tell the difference between contemplative silence and oppressive silence, that’s simply more evidence that we need more than one word for silence.

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