Silence, a Politics

Topics: Political philosophy, Politics, Political science Pages: 23 (7910 words) Published: February 2, 2013
Contemporary Political Theory, 2003, 2, (49–65) r 2003 Palgrave Macmillan Ltd 1470-8914/03 $15.00

Silence: A Politics
Kennan Ferguson1
Department of Government and International Affairs, University of South Florida, 4202 East Fowler Avenue, SOC 107, Tampa, FL 33620-8100, USA E-mail:

This article investigates the unfamiliar political implications of silence. Generally regarded as simply a lack of speech imposed upon the powerless, silence is thereby positioned as inimical to politics. In a normatively constituted lingual politics, silence’s role can never be more than that of absence. The subsequent understanding that silence can operate as resistance to domination has opened original and ground-breaking treatments of its role in political practice. However, the argument here moves beyond this simple dualism, examining how silence does not merely reinforce or resist power, but can be used to constitute selves and even communities. That silence can operate in such diverse ways, as oppression, resistance, and/or community formation, leads to the recognition that its ultimate politics cannot be fixed and determined. Contemporary Political Theory (2003) 2, 49–65. doi: 10.1057/palgrave.cpt.9300054 Keywords: silence; politics; communication; linguistics; community

Political conflicts, identities, and ideologies are negotiated linguistically, language being both the instrument by which humans interact and the means of constructing what it means to be human. That voice and speech are central to the construction of community and political action is practically a truism within political theory. The assumption that language is deployed unproblematically and ubiquitously F that is, that language ‘just is’ and that all people use language identically and constantly F is, unfortunately, just as much a truism. For example, take what has served as the archetypal community for political theorists from Aristotle to Locke to present-day philosophers: the family. A family is made up of disparate individuals, with often conflicting values, commitments, interests, even affections, and yet still (generally) consider themselves a close-knit community. Usually, when family is used as metaphor for a larger community, however, commonality and unanimity is assumed, which essentially fails to even approximate the experience of most actual families. Contrary to the assumptions of such cultural commentators, close relatives no more necessitate unanimity than does national origin; indeed, some of the most brutal and unforgiving conflicts emerge within family structures.

Kennan Ferguson Silence: A Politics


Families, instead, use a variety of mechanisms to persevere. Of interest here is one particular strategy, often used in situations of profound disagreement (religion, politics, sexuality): that of silence. One important though not exclusive way to negotiate such differences is not to speak of them; to allow other, more uncomplicated, topics of discussion to form the linguistic medium in which the family exists (Tannen, 1990). These silences need not be total or universal, but they are often a useful strategy to enable domestic continuity in the face of radical discontinuity. This tactic is exemplary, too, for larger communities. Thus, commonalities, both real and imagined, are already based on lack of speech: political, ethical, and epistemological silences which are necessarily backgrounded to establish other, overlapping connections. Yet those who wish to build and reinforce community mention silence only as a threat to community, as failure and malfunction. Silence is that which is imposed upon marginalized groups, for example, so it is easily assumed that silence must be overcome. Silence is indicative of miscommunication, so a model of community based on an image of language as transparent communication must eliminate silence. Even if silence is recognized as...
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