The sound of silence


Those who know me, know that silence is not really my thing. The challenge is not so much to get me talking, as to shut me up.

So it probably won’t come as much of a surprise to let you know that last night I was awarded the Australian Rostrum (ACT) Freeman Colin Johns Trophy for the New Speaker of the Year.

(Well, new to Rostrum, if not exactly new to speaking.)

The topic was silence, and one of the really fun things about public speaking competitions is to see how everyone interprets the topic differently.

Here’s what I had to say on silence:

Silence is not golden.

Silence is dangerous.

It is the tool of tyranny, the insidious weapon of oppression that smothers dissent like a toxic gas and maintains the illusion of homogenous conformity.

Ladies and gentlemen, I can see that you are all charming, intelligent people. I think that in all likelihood I am preaching to the choir. But is case you are in any doubt on the dangers of silence, let’s consider how we are lured into it, how as Paul Simon warned us, silence like a cancer grows.

In the 1950s psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments that purported to be about visual perception, but instead tested whether people would conform with a majority decision.

36.8% of responses agreed with a deliberately incorrect majority and 75% of participants conformed in one or more of the tests, doubting their own judgment as the tests progressed and becoming increasingly uncomfortable with being out of step with the majority.

They were more comfortable agreeing with something that they knew to be wrong, than going against the group consensus.

If I told you that this chair was a pelican, and everyone else in the room agreed that, yes, it was obviously a pelican, would you be willing to stand up and say “no, it’s a chair.”

Asch’s Paradigm indicated that 5% of people would, straight up agree it’s a pelican, and that up to 75% could be convinced to indicate their agreement.

Now, Asch’s experiment was in regard to the relative length of some lines drawn on pieces of card. The more controversial the issue, the less likely people are to speak out.

The spiral of silence theory explains that people will not speak out when there is a difference between what they believe and what they perceive to be public opinion.

Human beings are social animals, and because of it we can be controlled.

Our fear of isolation motivates us to conform to a perceived social norm.

And where does that lead us when our social norms are depicted, or indeed dictated, through mass media, or propaganda that silences and divides us and apportions blame to a marginalised ‘other’.  History has shown us time and time again.

War. Genocide. Destruction. Have we learned our lesson?

We must speak. We must be willing to risk social isolation, to risk scorn and ridicule, to risk abuse and indeed attack.  Everyone from Plato to John Stuart Mill to Tolstoy to Einstein has said it, in one form or another: The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. For us to be silent.

Those willing to break the spiral of silence are the non-conformists who don’t care if something is public opinion, they look to its merits and speak against it if it is wrong.

Raise your hand, raise your voice, take that risk

Do you think your opinion doesn’t count?

Do you think that other voices should be prioritised above your own?

Are you silent because you want to avoid conflict?

You might feel that you are freely choosing not to speak, but perhaps self-silencing beliefs inform that choice.  There is no surer method of oppression than to convince the oppressed that their opinions do not count, will not be heard, and so should not even be voiced.

I want you to think for a moment about how social inequality causes self-silencing, and forces marginalised people into the spiral of silence.

You are non-conformists – you will speak out.

Before you do, imagine yourself not within the spiral, but at the centre of a series of circles. You are the point of commonality in a complex Venn diagram that maps your lived experience, that reflects the groups you belong to. Some of those groups might be obvious – visual cues such as the colour of your skin, or the clothes you wear will reveal them. Others are hidden – but you know them because they are a part of you.

Age, gender, sex, sexuality, morality, nationality, occupation, education, family, faith, creed, and colour.

Look to the person beside you. You see some of those visual cues. Do not think, for one moment, that their set of circles is any less complex than yours.

Now, consider the “Everyman” who stands at the centre of a set of circles that map our society’s perception of ‘the norm’. Those unearned assets – a Venn diagram of privilege.

He is a man, aligned to the male gender.

He is white.

He is heterosexual.

He is able-bodied, attractive, fit, healthy, wealthy and, if not necessarily wise, at least educated and within the parameters of mental wellness.

He is a Christian, most probably a Protestant.

He has a house and a job, and a regular income.

At how many points do the circles of your Venn diagram overlap with his? From how many points of privilege do you speak? You might not even realise how lucky you are, but I would encourage you to think about how willing our society might be to prioritise your voice and your opinions, because of that privilege.

Spiderman says, paraphrasing everyone from Lord Melbourne to Franklin Roosevelt, that with great power comes great responsibility.

Use your privilege for good, instead of evil.

Use your voice.

Do not be silent because your opinion is different to public opinion.

Do not be silent because you have learned to self-silence and prioritise the voice of others.

Do not be silent because you speak from privilege, but know that you do so.

Silence is dangerous, but you can break it, and your voice can make things better for those who are too afraid to speak.

I’d like to leave you with the words of Audre Lorde, an African-American activist and self-declared ‘lesbian mother warrior poet’ who said:

I write for those who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they’re so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.

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