The Notion of Silence vs the Act of Silencing

Silence is often associated with an absence or a void. However, in many cases, silence is in fact a powerful means of communication. For example, it is often used as a highly emotional tool in commemorative rituals, like the two-minute silence held to remember victims of war. It can relate to the desire to achieve peace and to connect with the divine through meditation and prayer, as is the case in Buddhist or Quaker silent practice. Silence can be also an active way of resistance, where the decision to refrain from talking requires a considerable amount of willpower, such as not to divulge a hiding location of political prisoners. However, silence can also tell us about a culturally tabooed subject of which one is not meant to speak publicly, such as menstrual cycle; or indicate danger and fear, as is evocatively described in Harry Potter novels featuring “You-Know-Who”. As such, it does not exclusively belong to a singular domain, rather it oscillates between liberty and restriction, conflict and reconciliation, presence and absence, as well as hope and fear. The type of silence that I am particularly interested in is ‘historical silence’, referring to fragments of the past that is available and meaningful in the present day (people know about it/remember it either personally or vicariously), however we do not officially talk about it or commemorate it. It is silenced.

Silencing is an active attempt of a social actor (individual, group, or institution) to directly or indirectly assert their power to silence another social actor. Silencing is thus fundamentally different to forgetting, which, in my reading, is not prescriptive. If a social actor is forced to refrain from remembering, it is a form of silencing, not forgetting. Silencing, as an act of causing another social actor to fall silent, can also take multiple forms. For instance, a religious group can attempt to silence marginalized groups, such as LGBTQ+ by the threat of excommunicating them from the church they belong to; totalitarian regimes can silence their opponents by imprisonments or by sending political prisoners into labour camps; criminal organizations like the mafia can be silencing their victims by killing them; or nation states sanitize their past wrongdoings by silencing compromising narratives in the national school curricula, such as the case of whitewashing the USA’s history textbooks, as one example among many. Silencing is always political, serving particular purposes, and reflecting current societal power dynamics.


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