Eloquent Silences: Silence and Dissent



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Eloquent Silences: Silence and Dissent

A Tanesini

Cardiff University

Abstract: Partly in response to the imperative that we disclose information about ourselves, individuals are increasingly turning to silence as a means to protest, refuse and resist. Yet, there is to my knowledge no existing philosophical account of silence as communicative act of dissent. This paper has three main goals. The first is to fill the lacuna in the existing philosophical literature by showing that silence can be an illocution which is used to communicate. In other words, silence can be eloquent. The second is to argue that silence when eloquent is not usually expressive of acceptance. Instead it often signals that something is awry with the ongoing conversational exchange. The third is to identify some features of eloquent silences that explain their effectiveness, in some contexts, in expressing dissent.

A political dissident is interrogated. She is asked time and again to reveal the names of other activists. In response, she remains silent. A black man narrates his experiences of racial discrimination to a white audience. No one interrupts him. When he finishes, his audience is silent, still, showing no signs of emotion. Hundreds of students sit silent on the ground, motionless forming a path from the entrance of a University building. Through them moves a woman, looking nervous, who is being followed by reporters.1 These, and many more, are things we do with silence. Some of them are ways in which dissent can be “voiced”.

It is prima facie plausible to think that these silences are effective communicative acts and to take the silences they involve to be examples of illocutions such as protesting, refusing or dissenting.2, 3 Further, it is commonplace in linguistics and in political theory to accept that some silences are propositionally meaningful (e.g., Tannen and Saville-Troike 1995; Ferguson 2003; Ephratt 2008). Yet, there is, to my knowledge, no philosophical discussion of this phenomenon. Whilst it is widely acknowledged in the philosophical literature that speech acts can be performed silently, the examples which are considered involve body language or other physical gestures. There is no discussion of the communicative potential of silence itself.

This lacuna is particularly troubling given the recent prominence of silence as a tool of dissent. Until the 1990s’ silence has often been equated with powerless or acquiescence. The Act Up slogan “Silence = death” was indicative of this approach (Cf., Ferguson 2003). In recent years, however, uses of silence as a means of resistance or protest have proliferated. For instance since 1996 in April every year the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in the USA holds a day of silence in schools to express solidarity with gay and lesbian students and to raise ‘awareness about the silencing effect of anti-LGBT bullying, harassment and discrimination’ (GLSEN 2017; cf., Woolley 2012). Silent demonstrations have been held in Iran in 2009 protesting against perceived widespread electoral fraud (Ranjbar 2017); in Ecuador against the mining of rain forests (Fitz-Henry 2016); and in Mexico against the violence that pervades the lives of indigenous people (Carmona 2014). In Turkey, a performance artist begun in 2013 a silent protest against Prime Minister Erdogan. He soon became known as the standing man and hundreds joined him in silent protest (Seymour 2013).

There are several likely causes for the rise in popularity of silence as a way of dissenting. Prominent among them is increased awareness that we live in a society where individuals are on a daily basis mandated to disclose personal information to authorities and institutions. Citizens are thus often confronted with officials, impersonal forms or websites, whose task is to make individuals produce speech about themselves, and that succeed in eliciting such speech whilst bypassing, undermining, or overriding the agent’s will. In other words, we live in societies in which citizens frequently have their speech extracted from them (McKinney 2016).4 In addition, social media such as Facebook or Twitter nudge their users to make public personal information about the minutiae of their daily lives. Within this context it is hardly surprising that choosing silence becomes a way of withdrawing and dissenting.5

This paper has three main goals. The first is to fill the lacuna in the existing philosophical literature by showing that silence can be an illocution which is used to communicate. In other words, silence can be eloquent.6 The second is to argue that silence when eloquent is not usually expressive of acceptance. Instead, it often signals that something is awry with the ongoing conversational exchange. The third is to identify some features of eloquent silences that explain their effectiveness, in some contexts, in expressing dissent.



  1. Eloquent Silences

The aim of this section is to provide an account of eloquent silences which I define as silences that (a) are illocutions and (b) are intended to communicate. I also show that silences of this kind are commonplace. I begin this section by explaining what I mean by silence in order to exclude sign and body language. Subsequently, I consider different kinds of silence before focusing on some which seem intuitively to be eloquent. Using both Gricean and one non-Gricean account of illocutions, I show that there are some silences that fit neatly these accounts. I note that interlocutors’ recognition of the communicative intentions of those who keep silent often depend in part on the fact that silences are often adjacent to other speech acts to which they respond such as a question, a greeting, or a request. Finally, I argue that whilst some eloquent silences adhere to Grice’s Cooperative Principle, others flout, violate or opt out of it.7

Before I can contrast eloquent silences, with which I am concerned, with other silences that do not communicate, I need to provide a characterisation of silence in general. For my purposes here, some behaviours which are not vocal are nevertheless not silence because they constitute linguistic or verbal behaviour which deploys non-acoustic means of communication. These behaviours include: writing, sign-language, and communication by means of gestures. Even though they can be carried out silently, these communications are verbal (Cf., Saville-Troike 1995, p. 5); they are not silence. Silence, then, is non-acoustic behaviour which is also non-verbal.

Even if we restrict our focus to silence so characterised, there are silences that are not communicative. Some of these silences are extraneous to conversations; others facilitate conversation without communicating anything themselves. First, silences that occur outside communicative exchanges include the silence of a person who is asleep, or of strangers sitting side by side in the reading room of a library. They also include silences caused by external forces that prevent one from speaking such as the silence that follows a loud noise, but also the silence of someone who is locutionarily silenced and thus rendered unable to speak.8 These are all silences which are outside communicative events. Of course, whilst some may be innocuous, others - such as those resulting from locutionary silencing - are generally harmful.

Second, there are also silences which are part of conversations, and enable communication, but still have themselves no communicative function. These include pauses in speech to swallow or breathe, to find the right words or to decide what to say. Another kind of silence, which enables communication but is not itself part of it, is the silence of listeners that allow the speakers’ words to be heard. Ritualised silences that serve to intensify the significance of speech in religious or spiritual ceremonies such as Quakers’ meetings may also be thought to enable communication by framing or foregrounding it (Saville-Troike 1995).9

Third, there are silences which can be taken as evidence of the mental state of the silent person without being themselves communicative acts. These are exemplified, for instance, by long hesitations which may be interpreted as evidence of indecision, or of thoughtfulness; they may also be read as indicating that what one is about to say is painful or otherwise hard to express. These silences are sources of information. Generally, however, they are not communicative acts.10

These silences are not communicative because there is nothing that the speaker means in being silent. Thus, a forteriori, there is no meaning that they intend to communicate. That is, whilst it seems possible to illocute without intending to have an effect on any audience (Davis 1992); one cannot purport to communicate without this intention. Yet, plausibly enough, in all cases considered so far, the silent individual does not even mean anything by her silence.

We can defend this claim in different ways depending on our preferred account of speaker’s meaning. Given Grice’s account, speaker’s meaning requires that one intends to have an effect on one’s audience (Grice 1957). This intention seems absent in many of the examples discussed above. In others, such as the silence of the audience which allows the words of the speaker to be heard, the silent individual intends to have an effect on the audience, but they do not necessarily intend that their interlocutors recognise their intentions. The claim also stands if we adopt a different account of illocution. For instance, Mitchell Green (2007) has argued that speaker’s meaning requires that one intends to make publicly manifest one’s commitment to a content and also to make this intention publicly manifest. This self-reflexive intention is absent in the examples of silence under consideration. The person who hesitates, and whom we may interpret as pained, may not intend to manifest any commitment.11

In this paper, I do not discuss the kinds of silence that I have briefly described so far. Instead, I am interested in silences that, on the face of it, are eloquent because they communicate something to interlocutors. Such silences are usually instances of elicited illocutions or example of resisting elicitation.12 Silences can enact many different illocutions. Prominent among these are refusals to be drawn into some conversations and announcements that one is opting out of an existing one.

Students remaining silent in the face of a teacher’s invitation to speak are examples of refusals to be drawn into a conversation. Such silences can be expressions of boredom, lack of engagement, or absent-mindedness;13 often, they are also attempts to undermine teachers’ authority by challenging their entitlement to demand students’ participation. These silences are aptly described by Perry Gilmore as non-submissive subordinate sulks (1995 pp. 148-50). Individuals, who stop contributing to a conversation by pointedly keeping silent, announce their opting out. Such silences, especially when prolonged over time and directed at particular individuals, are an effective mean of ostracising people by giving them the silent treatment.

Eloquent silences can also be moves within on-going conversations. They can express agreement as in the example of a congregation’s silence at a Christian wedding ceremony after the minister has proclaimed that if anyone knows of any impediment to the marriage, he or she must immediately say so. They can function as answers to questions; for instance, when a person keeps silent after a friend’s query: ‘Are you still mad at me?’.14 They can be invitations as exemplified by short silences marking turn-taking in conversation when a speaker gives the floor to a hearer inviting him to speak. But they can also be acts of resistance, refusal or protest. These include: the silence of silent protesters; that of the person who resists or deflects interrogation; and also, at least in some cases, white silence in response to black’s autobiographical narratives of discrimination.15

In addition, some silences that make one’s emotional state manifest are also eloquent moves within a conversation. I noted above that long silent hesitations need not be communicative. However, if one noticeably hesitates before speaking and that hesitation is unusually long, then it is plausible that one’s silence is communicative.16 For instance, a person may hesitate with the intention that her silence makes it publicly discernible that she is still thinking about the answer, and also with the intention that it is publicly discernible that her intention is to make manifest that she is still thinking about the answer. This hesitation is an action which is overt because it results from the self-referential intention to make the agent’s commitment to a content manifest and to make this very intention also publicly observable (Green 2007, p. 66). In being silent in this way a speaker means that she is still thinking about what to think on the topic but also, plausibly, she intends to communicate a request that the interlocutor gives her time to formulate her contribution to the conversation.

In the remainder of this section, I argue first that eloquent silences are genuine illocutions in their own right. Second, I indicate that if we want to understand the content and illocutionary force of these silences it is often useful to view them as one element within an adjacency pair of speech acts. Finally, I argue that whilst there are cooperative silences, silence is also an extremely effective mean to communicate that one is not willing to co-operate.

A speech act or illocution is commonly defined as an action that can, but does not need to be, performed by saying that this is what one is doing. Hence, for example, one can promise by saying ‘I promise’, assert by saying ‘I assert’ or order by saying ‘I order’. These are all illocutions (Austin 1976, p. 137; Green 2007, p. 70). Since, however, we cannot persuade someone by saying ‘I persuade’, persuading is not an illocution but a perlocutionary act. It is generally accepted that illocutions can be actions that do not involve the use of spoken, written or sign-language. However, examples of silent illocutions in the existing literature usually involve gestures or so-called body language.17 There is to my knowledge no philosophical literature on being silent as an illocution. Yet, without doubt being silent can be an intentional action. One can intend to be silent, to hesitate or to give someone the silent treatment. So, one may legitimately ask whether some intentional silences are illocutions.

The answer, it would seem, is affirmative no matter which account of illocution one adopts among some prominent contenders.18 One such approach is inspired by Grice’s account of speaker’s meaning. In Grice’s view a speaker means something by her actions only if she intends (a) to produce an effect in her audience, and (b) that her intention (a) is recognised by her audience, but also (c) that the effect in the audience is produced (at least in part) as a result of the audience’s recognition of intention (a) (Grice 1957). Illocutions would be those actions which count as a speaker meaning something. For example, I can assert that p by performing an action A (e.g., uttering p) intending to make my interlocutors believe that p, and form that belief as a result, at least in part, of their recognition of my intention to make them believe that p.

Some silences exemplify this structure. A speaker may remain quiet after having made some utterances intending (a) that her interlocutor believes that he is invited to speak, and (b) that her interlocutor recognises that (a) is her intention; but also (c) that her interlocutor comes to believe that he is being invited to speak partly at least because he recognises that this is her intention. Her silence is an invitation which communicates that it is the interlocutor’s turn to speak.

Similarly, a person may keep silent for a while after a question intending that his audience believes that he is still thinking about the answer, and intending them to believe this as a result (at least in part) of their recognition of his intention. Silences of this sort are often also requests for more time before adding one’s contribution to the conversation. They are generally recognised and respected as such by interlocutors who typically wait for the other person to speak. Further, interlocutors’ silences are also illocutions. They would seem to be a way in which one can grant the initial request for thinking time. 19 It is thus possible to have a silent dialogue in which one person asks for more time before speaking and the other person accedes to their request. This stretch of conversation can be carried out without words and, at least among conversational partners who are comfortable with each other, without the need for gestures or body language as ways of expressing one’s intentions.

A similar interpretation readily offers itself for silent challenges of authority. The students who publicly display non-submissive subordinate sulks choose to remain silent. In being silent students challenge the teacher’s authority and intend that challenge to be recognised by the teacher and to produce in the teacher the belief that his authority is being challenged (partly at least) through this recognition. It is natural to think of this case as one in which students mean something with their silence and successfully communicate what they mean. This content can be captured with expletives or described as saying: ‘I am not doing what you want me to do’.

Other eloquent silences, however, do not appear to require reflexive communicative intentions. That is to say, in some cases the intention that, the effect be produced in the audience partly at least as a result of the audience’s recognition that the speaker intended to produce it, may be absent. Grice explicitly discusses an example in which this intention is missing. He classifies Herod’s action of presenting Salome with the head of St John the Baptist on a charger as an instance of letting someone know that something is the case but not as an example of telling something. Herod intends to make Salome believe that St John the Baptist is dead. He also intends her to recognise that this is his intention. Presumably, she forms the belief that St John the Baptist is dead. However, her belief does not require that she recognises his intention to get her to believe this since she can exclusively rely on her own eyes (Grice 1957, p. 382). For this reason, Grice takes this not be an instance of speaker’s meaning.

Many silences that I have categorised as eloquent have this structure. Consider the person who keeps silent after a friend has asked whether she is still mad at him. This person intends (a) that her friend believes that she is still mad at him; she also intends (b) that he recognises that (a) is her intention. But she need not intend (c) that he believes that she is still mad at him through his recognition of her intention. She is happy enough if his belief is based on the observation of her behaviour rather than the recognition of her intention. Hence, if Grice is right, these silences too would not be examples of illocutions.

I do not need to take a stance on this issue here, since as I have shown some silences do involve reflexive communicative intentions. Nevertheless, it seems plausible to hold that not all illocutions require that one also intends to have an effect on an audience.20 It is possible for someone to mean something by an utterance without thereby intending to communicate this meaning to anyone, not even herself.21 If this is right, Grice’s would be best interpreted as an account of communicative acts rather than of illocutions. In addition, his claim that showing or letting someone know is not communicative because it is not an instance of telling is also open to serious counter-examples. Suppose that, in response to an invitation to play squash, I show you a heavily bandaged leg. I clearly mean by that gesture that I cannot play. I also clearly communicate this fact to you. Yet in this case too your belief that I cannot play may be wholly based on an observation of the state of my leg (Schiffer 1972, p. 56).

These considerations have prompted some to abandon Grice’s approach in favour of other accounts of illocutions that do not even require that the speaker intends to produce an effect in her audience. For instance, Green has argued that speaker meaning is a matter of overtly showing one’s commitment to a content under a given illocutionary force (2007, p. 74). More precisely, a person S means that p with illocutionary force ϕ if and only if S performs an action A, intending to manifest that one’ committment to p under force ϕ and that this intention is also manifest (ibid.)

The examples of eloquent silence that I have used so far to illustrate how silence can be an illocution nicely fit this account. They are all examples in which someone keeps silent intending to make publicly discernible one’s commitment to some content such as ‘I need more time’, ‘you are not in charge’, or ‘I am still mad’ under the force of a request, a challenge, or an assertion.22 This intention is self-referential since it is not just the intention to make their commitments manifest, it is also the intention to make publicly discernible that that is one’s intention.

I shall not try to adjudicate here between these different accounts of illocution.23 What matters for my purposes here is that independently of which account is to be preferred, my discussion above shows that some silences are illocutions. It also shows that the same action - being silent- can constitute a plethora of different illocutions with very different contents. It is, therefore, hard to fathom how silent agents can make publicly manifest one among many different possible commitments. It is equally mysterious how audiences are able to recognise agents’ intentions in keeping silent. Yet, silent communication regularly succeeds. The most plausible explanation of this achievement is based on the fact that eloquent silences are often either elicited or a way of resisting elicitation.

The thought that silent illocutions are produced either in order to fulfil at least some the intentions of the speaker whose speech elicits them, or to resist such elicitation, is compelling, once we consider that by themselves all silences are the same. This simple fact can be easily overlooked because when we think of the role of silence in conversation we often think of it in conjunction with distinctive gestures which are separate illocutions. If, as I argued above, silence itself can be an illocution, one can only account for its varied nature by thinking of it as an element within a structured sequence of illocutions.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to assess the prospects of theories of conversation. But even those who, like Searle (1992), think there is little prospect for success in the search for rules or regularities that would structure conversations admit to the existence of notable exceptions: adjacency pairs. These are pairs of illocutions in which the second element is a response to the first which precedes it. Searle briefly discusses three groupings: questions and answers; requests that one performs a speech act and their responses; offers, proposals or bets and the consequent acceptance or refusals (Searle 1992, pp. 8-10). It is striking that the examples of eloquent silences I discussed above, all seem to belong to one such groupings.

One way to think about the relations between illocutions that form adjacency pairs is to think of the second as being elicited by the first. Following McKinney (2016) we can think of an illocution of a speaker A as being elicited by a speaker B’s illocution when it is produced by A to fulfil at least some communicative and perlocutionary intentions of B towards A. For example, when a person A keeps silent when a friend B asks whether she is still mad at him, A fulfils the B’s communicative and perlocutionary intention that she answers his question. A can exploit this structure of elicitation to make publicly manifest her commitment to a specific content under a given force, whilst B’s knowledge of his own intentions and of A’s apparent commitment to fulfilling them allows him to recognise A’s intentions.



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