The Joys of Silence in the Noisy Season: Louder Than Words

One writer discovers that moments of silence can bring something other than discomfort, rather a sense of security and understanding

by Amy Waldman
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Here's a brief selection of outrages on which, despite having well-formed and strong positions, I have kept silent: our dubious pretexts for getting into the war in Iraq and the shortfalls in armor and medical care for soldiers once we got there; Proposition 8 in California; expanding Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories; the rise in the number of Americans living in poverty.

Maybe I've talked to my husband or friends about these issues; I've certainly talked to myself. But I've never issued a public statement, or written a blog, or marched in the street. Never even “liked” a campaign on Facebook, although I did canvass for Barack Obama. In most ways that matter, I have been silent.

I'm not necessarily proud of that; I vow, even as I write this, to change it. I hold back because of a reserved temperament; because as a longtime reporter, I wasn't allowed to speak freely; and because as I've grown up, or older, problems seem more complex, and their sheer number overwhelming. As a novelist now, I prefer to speak through stories.

In my habitual reticence, I'm not alone. For most of us, silence is the default mode, the factory setting. I don't mean the moments in family or professional life in which we revert to silence to preserve peace or because we can't find the words to speak. I'm talking about what might be called political silences—those that often affect the fates of strangers. Silences that allow atrocities and injustices to proceed. The world runs on such silences; history is built on them.

Like most other people, I assume that my actions, my words, will determine how I am judged. But what if I were to be judged—indicted—by these vast spaces in between? The silences far outnumber my actions, are so manifold that they can't be numbered at all.

In fact, we often do judge others in this regard, even as we exempt ourselves. After one Republican presidential debate, liberals demanded that conservatives speak out to denounce ugliness like the booing of a gay soldier. And after 9/11, many commentators insisted that Muslims—leaders and ordinary people alike—speak out to denounce terrorism. By doing so, they could shun or shame jihadists, the argument went; they would also prove they were on our side.

It was these repeated calls that got me interested in silence—interested enough to weave it into my novel, in which a main character is a Muslim American who resists calls to publicly denounce a terrorist attack. I wanted to explore how people read his refusal to speak, how it looks from the inside versus the outside.

What it looks like, I suspect, is coercion. I tend to seal my mouth when told what to say, even if I agree with the content. And people, unlike actors, rarely adhere to scripts. Conservatives may think that booing a soldier is wrong—but that gays in the military are worse. Muslims may think terrorism is terrible—but so are wars that kill thousands of Muslim civilians. We're lucky enough to live in a country that gives us the freedom to speak. But like it or not, that freedom gives us a right to silence, too.

Amy Waldman's first novel is The Submission, published in 2011.


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First Published October 14, 2011

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