Silence is far from nothing. Silence can be deadly and deadening. And silence is not a new form of violence. There is no natural silence. Even the apparent silence during a sudden solar eclipse is not silent. It is a space filled with tension of a lower decibel.
But the silence I mean is one of a different kind.
I mean the social silence. When one or more people who used to talk to you stop talking to you, that is the silence I mean. And when you are not told what the reasons may be. When you perhaps see them standing in a group close enough so you hear they are talking, maybe even throw what seems like furtive glances toward you but far enough away that you cannot hear more than the murmur. This form of silence has been magnified millionfold by what we call social media, and it has cost the lives of many. Call it bullying by silence. It also treats the victim as if it were not human, as if she or he had no feelings.
If we go back many thousands of years, really a great many thousands, we see most people living in an archaic form of “communities”. I have come to hate the word, and it will become clear why. There is something we humans have in common with rats and other warm-blooded creatures. Not only do we like (mostly) each other’s company, we need it for survival. This need for each other gives the each-other existential powers because only a few humans survive a solitary existence, like the occasional hermit or the much maligned lone old woman in the woods. By and large, you didn’t choose that existence without duress. And silence is that kind of duress.
Victimized by Nothing
Silence excludes the “victim of nothing” from the existential connections to others. Like all social abuse, it used to require a degree of effort by the perpetrators. Take turning one’s back on someone or huddling together for expletive exclusion, or spreading misinformation about a person. It’s all much easier today, it comes at the tap – or non-tap – of a finger. No blood, no risk, no accountability. The reasons stay the same, be it high tech or low tech silence, a self-righteous unwillingness to want to have an answer that might challenge one’s humanity to stretch a bit, colloquially also referred to as human courage.
Take the example of a group of children, let’s say a dozen or so, who regularly play with each other. There will be roles and dynamics in this group and there will be disagreements. On average, it will take one among them with a desire for more power than would otherwise be natural, and this one will find a second to project derived power onto the one, and this duo will then proceed to establish, and then consolidate power at the expense of the most suitable target. This target will be a child who is different or weak or merely enigmatic and the easiest object for communal action.
One option at this point is physical violence, and that may intimidate and hurt, a la “sticks and stones”. And this may be followed by verbal attacks, taunting and the like, which inflicts a double injury, because every verbal provocation is laced with the past experience of having been beaten up and the implied recognition that to react against the provocation would be more painful. This is a depression, an eating into one’s gut. In other words, words may very well break a child
A Wall of Silence
But the worst progression in this abuse escalation is the wall of silence. After sticks and stones caused bruises and words incited an autogenic depression (isn’t it always autogenic?), the silence makes the emotional bottom drop out. It injects a kind of a long-term virus of doubt. It elevates stress hormones forever and this way represents a tangible attack on the victim’s life expectancy. Why? Because it erodes the degree of trust that is required for every person to “reset” from the daily stresses of life. Very often, to drown out that latent stress, the victims will surround themselves with ambient stresses, bad global news, hardships, and people worse off.
There is little more disempowering than silence. If someone who once bought apples from me that the apples were rotten or tasteless, I can refund the money or replace the bad apples. I can remedy the situation. If the customer simply doesn’t come back or simply goes to the next produce stand and ostentatiously buys apples, and then triumphantly marches past my stand, I am left wondering, I am infected with the doubt virus. And even if I eventually think I forgot that experience, I didn’t. It is like a herpes-type virus that will break out under stress.
A Weapon for the Cowards
What makes silence a weapon of the coward is the omission factor. Silence is legal, silence leaves no tire marks, no powder burns, no carbon copies, no browsing history, and silence incurs no attorney’s fees.
Silences dehumanizes. If we consider the little gang of children or the neighbors along a suburban street who for no known reason cut a person out, they implicitly treat their victim as if they had no feelings, as if their days and night were not affected, their weekends, their trips to the market hoping for and dreading encounters with members of the wall of silence. Maybe, eventually, rumors trickle down of rumors having been disseminated by mostly unknown sources, with specific content being disclosed. But rather than ameliorate the stress, the rumor of rumors adds a further layer to the unknown threats: Who? Why? What did I do to them or did I do anything to anyone at all? Even rumors of the nature of front-page questions like “Is XYZ in reality the wanted murderer ZYX?” It will leave many readers convinced that the answer is affirmative. XYZ’s reputation is likely destroyed. No facts are needed, no investment, no risk. And the perpetrators sleep like angels and go to church every week and are considered the pillars of society.
For a quick excursion to the word “community”. Many people who have been around public or even limited group issues, have experienced how the term “community” is appropriated by some who in order to bolster their personal validity claim to represent a grouping. Most often, that effort is directed at one or two people who might question the validity of the alleged mandate. And the result is that the victim of the false community claim is left outside. Ironically, most such “communities” wear progressive, enlightened, or spiritual badges while, in reality they agglomerate and operate like any hierarchical little fiefdom, where one or a small group establishes themselves at the tip of a pyramid and kicks anyone possibly endangering such a top-of-the-heap position down the hill or out the door. Especially when this type of ostracizing is done under some sort of pseudo-spiritual peace flag, the existential devastation inflicted on the victim becomes unspeakably cynical. After all, the messages, verbal or silent, are clad in a terminology of love and peace. Add to this the implied hope raised by the word naming something we all desire, a hope that will more often than not be abused and then disappointed.
The 21st century variety silence adds two vastly magnifying dimensions: Invisibility and quantity. What is called “social media” allows perpetrators of silence to remain invisible and multiply exponentially overnight. The invisibility is “in plain sight” so to speak because the entire exchange – or lack thereof as in case of silence – is “mediated”. People don’t talk to people but chat or tweet or message or email and imagine the rest.
This is a perfect playing field for the withholding. I call it withholding because withholding is what silence is. If the interaction with people is experienced as a component in the balance of life, then its more-or-less sudden removal will destroy that balance. If we experience a power outage, we assume that the people on the imaginary other side of a communication would if they could. Not so with apparently intentional silence. The victim can for awhile make up excuses to soften the blow of nothing. But eventually nothing will become too evident. The disruption of the assumed balance can take on many shapes. But one thing is clear, the stresses as alluded to under “Wall of Silence” will set in, sometimes temporarily but sometimes triggering a downward spiral. This downward spiral can be fatal.
Indigenous Death Sentence
There are indigenous societies where there is barely ever a need for “justice”. Any transgressions are settled by elders and the transgressors are given a way to see their wrongs, make restitution, and learn to change their ways. Only in the rare case that a person perpetrates a hugely grave and irreparable transgression and refuses to reintegrate into the society will there be such a thing as punishment. And in the rarest of all such rare cases will there be a kind of death penalty, but not by way of the person getting actually killed. In cases like these, the perpetrator is “condemned” to removing himself from the society and go away and die. And they do. The life energy required to function in that society incorporates the community to such a critical extent that a withdrawal is experienced as termination of life.
Of course, “death by power outage” (no phone, no internet, no email, no facebook) would be an extreme occurrence, but if we take the metaphor a little further and contemplate the communal energy in an indigenous tribe like a life support system – which it is –its withdrawal would be akin to “pulling the plug”.
This heading has been used before. to describe astronomic phenomena, for example. In our case, “nothing” can become a deadly weapon. In fact, there have been cases where teenagers, whose emotional stability depended on their internet “community” did take their own life when that life-line was cut.
What I’m trying to get across is the responsibility each participant in the core of what we call our age, the “age of communication”, has for maintaining their thread of the web. Other than in the case of abuse, we cannot, instead of dealing with a conflict, wash our hands of a relationship and simply drop the communication. The other person is a person, a human, with feelings like ours, fears, hopes, desires, aspirations like ours, and fallibility like ours. She or he is not a cartoon, not an administrative entity, not an applicant or a defendant, let alone “the enemy”.
There is no need for an extensive excursion into how, for example, the National Socialists in Germany systematically dehumanized members of what they considered inferior races or segments of society, like Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals or communists. Neither is there a need for a similar excursion into slavery in the US and its dehumanizing of black people, for example, which lasted into the 1970’s and is still well and alive in some notorious minds.
Neither Enslave nor be a Slave
What’s going to be my elegant wrap-up here?
There isn’t going to be one, because none of the above is about “them” or is suitable to provide a sense of relief. This little essay just may make things worse, whether you agree with it or categorically reject it or maintain a safely “yes but maybe” stance.
Silence Fiction is but one strand in the rope of dehumanization that is slowly draped around our necks. On the one hand, people become more dependent on the amorphous mass reflection or the approval of fictional “friends”; on the other hand, the stress of that dependency often makes them act out their power – that of silence, for example – against others. Everyone of us is potentially both, slave by way of having made ourselves dependent and slave master (abuser) by way of assuming a place of accuser, witness, judge, and jury in an everything-goes jungle of disempowerment.
So the question remains: will any of the readers apply any of this to themselves?