After the workshop of 19 May, The Rest is Silence, I went away thinking about the silences we approve, as a society – or even enforce, to maintain the status quo – and those we find troubling, in the way that monuments need to trouble us: to haunt us into steering history in a better direction. Whose silence has the capacity to become monumental, and why?
The workshop focused on silence as an act of commemoration. Commemoration of this sort is, I think, protest under a different light: an act of non-violent resistance. This happened: it must never happen again.
A silence of commemoration or protest represents a decision to boycott our collective aural space: by withdrawing from speech, even briefly. But boycotts are only effective when exercised by people with some sort of individual or collective power. Commemorative silences work when they are underpinned by a social contract which notices your silence, which sees it as important. Silences only operate as acts of resistance when they are attended to, rather than simply accepted as the natural order of things.
Whose silences pass below our notice? Women’s silence; the silence of people of colour; the silence of those who do not speak English. Our society codes these groups, in ways it is easy to avoid noticing if you are lazy, as ones which cannot or do not or should not speak. We are taught to experience their silences as evidence that the world is functioning correctly.
Conversely, we respond to white male silence in the same way that we respond to male pain. It is unsettling; it stirs us to action; we want to know what underlies it. It becomes, in other words, something which we are obliged to do something about.
How does commemorative silence work in a diverse society? Which groups manage it, propel it, give it value? How does that affect the kind of event which we acknowledge with a socially-significant silence? And how many silences of resistance occur without the establishment noticing?
We are starting to understand that many silences are too easy to ignore. Ironically, this understanding comes at a time when it has never been easier to ignore silence: to overwrite it with chatter or rolling news or distraction. I left the workshop wondering if commemorative silence was fit for purpose any longer.
Balliol & Brasenose Colleges, University of Oxford
Noreen Masud was a participant in the second workshop of the Aural Commemoration strand, ‘The Rest is Silence’. You can listen to the panellists’ presentations from the workshop on our podcast series.