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Democracy field notes

June 4th 1989: Silence, Power and Politics

‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent’, wrote the young Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus (1921). The words are now famous, but in matters of politics the elegant last-sentence formula of his key early work must be doubted, and revised. The reasons are complex but can be put simply: those who exercise control over others typically depend on much more than stated alibis, or money, or threats of violence. Their power is always rooted in silence.

Silence about things whereof we cannot speak is always a political matter. Hush can have civil effects, of course, as when a call for silence precedes the entry of a judge into a court of law; or when crowds are requested by the authorities to observe a minute’s respectful silence; or when jurors are obliged to remain publicly silent about their deliberations (as in the grand jury system in the United States). People politely rise, respectfully stand, or they dutifully hold their tongues. In these cases, the political effects are mostly benign, certainly when compared to those situations where the powerful rule through the production of silence.

Public silence can be the refuge of rogues, who often have a good feel for a basic insight of such fields as semiotics, anthropology and socio-linguistics, where the analysis of human language has underscored the many ways in which silence is not just the aftermath of communication. The key political relevance of this insight is that communication using words backed by signs and text is always actively shaped by what is unsaid, or what is not sayable. Communication is the marginalia of silence: the foam and waves on its deep waters.

That is why democratic politics is so often confronted with the challenge of exposing the invisible beds and blocks of silence through which power operates. There are moments when silence about the power of silence simply isn’t a legitimate option. Refusal to hold one’s tongue in the face of organised silence is imperative, in order to bring power back to earth, sometimes with a bump. Fearless speech, or parrhesia as ancient Greek democrats called it, can be a reality check on bossy arbitrary power, a potent means of preventing those who act as if they rule the world from ruining lives wrapped in silence.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on the evening of June 4th 2015. China Digital Times/Alexlux
Tens of thousands of people attending a candlelight vigil at Victoria Park in Hong Kong, Thursday evening, June 4th 2015, in memory of the victims of the massacre that followed the 1989 student-led Tiananmen Square protests. AP/Kin Cheung
AP/Vincent Yu

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