Eloquent Silences: Silence and Dissent

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Eloquent silences are also often acts of resisting elicitation. They are therefore refusals to fulfil some communicative or perlocutionary intentions directed toward the person who keeps silent in response. In this case also the agent can rely on a common understanding of the structure of elicitation to intend to make manifest her commitments. In this case the nature of A’s commitment is specified by the refusal to fulfil at least some of B’s intentions; B is able to recognise A’s intentions because he has knowledge of his own intentions and of A’s apparent commitment not to fulfil them.

Eloquent silences can be co-operative or non-cooperative.24 Interestingly, they sometimes function as a co-operative way of announcing the end of co-operation. Grice’s Co-operative Principle states that one should make one’s conversational contribution ‘such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which [one is] … engaged’ (Grice 1989, p 26). Eloquent silences that are moves within on-going conversations usually satisfy the principle.25 The congregation’s silence is maximally informative, relevant and unambiguous. Silently requesting time to think also satisfy the principle. One could also ask for more time by means of words to that effect, but doing so in most cases slows down the conversation even further. It is also not necessary unless one is proposing to return to the topic at a later date. Even the silence of the person who is still mad at one is co-operative since it unambiguously and effectively communicates one’s annoyance.

Other eloquent silences flout the co-operative principle. None is clearer than the silence of the dissident and of the protester in the face of attempts to extract information, promises or other commitments out of them.26 In these cases the silent objector patently attempts not to make her contribution informative and she resists the speakers’ attempts lay some obligations on her. Non-subordinate submissive silences are examples of intermediate cases since they are informative, relevant and unambiguous negative responses to the request or command made by a person in authority that one performs an illocution. It does not seem implausible to identify them as way of marking co-operatively the end of one’s cooperation. These are examples of individuals who respond to attempts to elicit their speech by frustrating some of the perlocutionary intentions of those who intended to make them speak. However, their silence is cooperative since it is relevant, informative and unambiguous.

  1. Silence as assent and as acceptance

Recently Philip Pettit (2002) and Sandford Goldberg (2016; 2018; MS) have argued that, barring the presence of defeaters, speakers are entitled to presume that silent interlocutors accept what speakers have said.27,28 In this section, I take issue with this view. Instead, I argue that even if we grant that audiences have a defeasible obligation to make their dissent manifest, it does not follow that such disagreement cannot be communicated by means of silence. In particular, I show that at least when silence is eloquent, it cannot be presumed by default to communicate assent.29

It may be instructive to consider first examples where silence is eloquent and communicates assent. Goldberg mentions the so-called “tacit acceptance procedure” used by some committees when ratifying reports. Given this procedure, documents are tacitly accepted unless someone explicitly raises an objection before a pre-set deadline (MS, p. 7). Silence in these cases may not be wholly freely chosen, but it communicates assent, as does the silence of the congregation when it has been directed by the minister to speak out against the marriage or forever acquiesce to its legitimacy. We should not, however, draw any general conclusion based on these examples alone since they essentially rely on speech acts known as directives.

The priest during the wedding ceremony instructs the audience either to speak up or accept the marriage. The minister’s illocution is thus a directive which is a speech act that tries to get the hearers to do something (Searle 1976, p. 11) or that lays some obligation on them (See Alston 2000, pp. 97-8). It is, thus, plausible to conclude that the reason why silence in this instance communicates assent is that members of congregation have acquired a special responsibility to state presently any objections they may harbour. The same considerations apply to tacit acceptance procedures. These silences are forms of assent because they are responses to specific directives. These examples of eloquent silences provide no evidence for the view that silence following an assertion also communicates acceptance.

In addition, there are situations where silence following an assertion overtly communicates disapproval.30 One is discussed by Grice in the context of failures to fulfill the submaxim relating to making one’s contribution relevant to the conversation. Grice considers the case of a person who, at a tea party, states that ‘Mrs X is an old bag’. The claim is followed by silence which Grice describes as ‘appalled’. Then one interlocutor continues the conversation by changing the topic to a discussion of the weather (1989, p. 35). Grice focuses on the change of subject, but the silence that precedes it is also a conversational move. The interlocutor’s silence communicates her consternation about the speaker’s claim. It conveys, by showing that one refuses to engage with it, that the speaker’s comment should not be dignified with a response (Ephratt 2012, pp. 65-6).

Further, it is not altogether clear that Grice is right to maintain that the appalled interlocutor violates the Co-operative Principle by not making her contribution relevant. Arguably, one may claim instead that the initial remark is out of order. Rude comments are unacceptable given the purposes of polite conversation at tea parties. Thus, it is the original speaker who is un-cooperative, whilst the interlocutor’s silence is co-operatively helpful by trying to steer the conversation back to its initially agreed purpose (ibid., p. 66). Hence, at times, pointed silence is the clearest, most coherent and helpful way, of communicating to a speaker that some remark of his is beyond the pale.

This example brings into relief some unwarranted assumptions in the arguments in favour of the view that the default, albeit defeasible, interpretation of silence following an assertion is acceptance. First, these arguments fail to distinguish clearly deliberate silence from a failure to remark on a specific claim. Second, they appear to presume that disagreement can only be conveyed by saying something. That is, they ignore the possibility that silence may communicate dissent. Third, they overlook the possibility that the initial speaker’s contribution may itself be uncooperative.

To substantiate these charges, I need to give a flavour of the position I wish to oppose. According to this view, it is a feature of the practice of assertion that any claim made in a conversation, which is not challenged, is accepted by default; it, thus, becomes part of the background presuppositions of that linguistic exchange. Therefore, it is incumbent on the interlocutors to block the addition of a new assertion to the common ground or to the conversational score of the conversation, if they object to it. 31 If they fail to act, the assertion is accepted.

Although I have reservations about it (Tanesini 2016), I do not wish in this paper to challenge the thesis that assertions are accepted by default. Instead, I want to challenge the claim that silence cannot be a rejection of an assertion. Defenders of the view that silence indicates acceptance do not address this issue head on. Instead, they ignore this possibility because its existence is obscured by two unargued but related presumptions. One is the assumption that silence may indicate something but says nothing. This neglect of eloquent silences makes it difficult to recognise the difference between keeping silent and not remarking upon a claim. Yet, whilst keeping silent is an act, not remarking upon a claim is best thought of as an omission. This second assumption that silence is always an omission rather than an act generates the tendency to conflate what are clearly distinct phenomena: one is omitting to say anything about a claim, often by saying something which continues the conversation; the other is keeping silent when one is invited to speak or is at least in a position to do so.

The interlocutor in the first case, by indicating his willingness to continue the conversation as normal, indicates his assent. The person who is deliberately keeping silent, instead, indicates that something is amiss with the conversation which, therefore, cannot continue as normal. It may be worth noting in this regard, how awkward silence often is in conversation. Silence is uncomfortable because it often marks the fact that things are not going well with the conversational exchange.32 Hence, it does not seem plausible that deliberate silence marks agreement. What may mark agreement is behaviour that indicates that all is well with the conversation. Such behaviour includes contributing to it without remarking upon, or drawing attention to, previous contributions in critical or negative ways.

In addition, those who take silence defeasibly to indicate assent overlook how frequently silence is used to express overtly, and make public, one’s dissent. One of the reasons why the prevalence of dissenting silence might have been overlooked is the focus on disagreement cashed out as having doubts about the truth of a claim, or believing it to be false. But disagreement may take different forms. One may object to an assertion because of the discriminatory vocabulary it deploys. One’s censure of slurs or hate speech is not primarily based on their falsity but on the harms they cause (and perhaps constitute). Thus, when confronted with such speech one may want to contest the legitimacy of uttering the words, rather than challenge the veracity of the assertion. That is, one may wish to reject that the oppressive speech contributes to the conversation, rather than to respond to it as legitimate move which is epistemically defective.

In this context, there is a risk that trying to offer reasons for the unacceptability of hate speech, actually ends up giving it some legitimacy. If one treats speech of this sort as requiring a reply rather than as deserving to ignored or dismissed, one can be plausibly taken to imply that it has made a contribution to the conversation. Plausibly, however, when one finds an assertion to be repugnant rather than merely false, pointed silence, that conveys the thought that the speaker is out of order, is an effective way of distancing oneself from the speaker and his or her speech.

In sum, I have shown that one may be lead to think that silence by default signals acceptance only if one overlooks some plausible features of the use of silence in communication. First, silence can be an illocution. Second, silence as an illocution often, or even usually, marks that something is going wrong rather than well in the conversation.33 Third, cooperation in conversation is a two-way street. Sometimes when a speaker is not cooperative, an helpful interlocutor will draw the speaker’s attention to the fact. Corrections of this sort are akin to censure or disapproval rather than to critical challenges. Silence can be an effective way to censure a speaker without being uncooperative.

3 Dissident silences

I have argued in the first section that silence can be eloquent. In section two I have shown that it is a mistake to think that silence defeasibly indicates acceptance. In this section, I present a non-exhaustive and partially overlapping taxonomy of eloquent silences as ways of expressing dissent. Subsequently, I discuss two features of dissident silence that make it a particularly effective tool in resisting discrimination and subordination. First, silence is more effective than verbal criticism at expressing censure of oppressive claims. Second, since silence often shows what it communicates, its success as an illocution does not require that its target audience trusts or is especially attentive to the intentions of silent individuals. Whilst the speech of the dispossessed may be not be listened to, their silence is, at times, harder to ignore.

Political theorists and linguists have offered different ways of categorising silence (Cf., Ephratt 2008; Jungkunz 2013), each suited for different purposes. Here I propose a different taxonomy based on the idea that the nature of silence is best understood in relation to those illocutions or standing conditions whose elicitation it resists. My taxonomy does not aim to be exhaustive or to identify mutually exclusive possibilities. Instead, my goal is to illustrate the variety of illocutions that can be performed by means of silence.

The first family of eloquent silences concerns those silences in the face of directives that demand that one speaks. These silences are refusals to comply; they are ways of resisting the elicitation or even extraction of speech.34 They can constitute many illocutions such as defiance, refusal, resistance, protest or withdrawal. Within this category one may include students’ silence as a challenge to the authority of teachers by means of subordinate non-submissive sulks (Gilmore 1995); the resistance of the political activist when remaining silent during an interrogation; the refusal of some athletes to sing the national anthem in silent protest (Jungkunz 2012, p. 140). It also comprises many tactics adopted by welfare recipients to resist state surveillance through failure to report some income, feigning ignorance and foot dragging (Jungkunz 2012, p. 142).35 This latter kind of resistant silent in the face of attempts to extract information has often been used by the subordinated to make themselves unknown to people in position of power (Collins 1991, p. 92).36

The second family includes those silences which are intentionally kept in contexts in which speech is invited or expected within some on-going conversation or debate. These silences are as varied as the speech that attempts to elicit them. They include silence in response to questions or the appalled silence of the person who thinks that what has just been said is out of order. To this family also belong the silences of silent protesters who wish to communicate their refusal to engage with institutional explanations of some event (Carmona 2014), and of those who wish to draw attention to those voices that are missing from the conversation so that to empower them (Jungkunz 2012; Ranjbar 2017, p. 618). Often these silences derive their significance from the fact that they confound expectations and are a source of surprise.

This second family also includes silences in response to queries that are intended to show that one should not be expected to be able to answer that question. This is a strategy of survival that has sometimes been adopted by subordinated individuals. It is, as I mentioned above, a way of making oneself unknown to those who can cause one harm. In this instance, one may keep silent to give the impression that one is slow-witted and has nothing to say. Such silence may be a result of the psychological damage inflicted by habitual silencing or it may be a conscious strategy to appear more deferential and less knowing than one actually is.37

Privileged individuals adopt a similar strategy to indicate that they regard their ignorance of some issue to be unproblematic. Sometimes, the silence of white people in the context of discussions of race belongs to this category. White silence, in these instances, is not indicative of attentive listening. Rather, it communicates that one thinks that one should not be expected to know anything about the topic, and, therefore, to be able to make a meaningful contribution. It thus implicates that white people are blamelessly ignorant about race (DiAngelo 2012; Applebaum 2016).

The third, and final, family of silences I wish to discuss concerns silence on occasions where there is a standing and generic expectation that speech will be present, although these have not been preceded by specific solicitations that one speaks. These silences too can be a form of protest which works by creating surprise, or discomfort, or by drawing attention to some of the features of the usual speech that go unnoticed until it is replaced with silence. Hence, for instance, silent protests in Ecuador were intended to communicate, by overtly standing in contrast to it, that dominant public speech was toxic because of its reliance on strong men and alleged saviours (Fitz-Henry 2016, p. 11). Performances of stillness and quietness in public spaces where bustling noise is generally expected also communicate similar messages.38 The use of silence by teachers overtly to communicate to students the acceptability of patterns of speech that include long silent pauses is another example of silence which acquires its eloquence through defying standing expectations.39

I hasten to add that the power of silence as a tool of dissent is not without its limitations. It is not a coincidence that it is primarily used by those who are powerless and as a weapon of last resort. It is often a strategy to deflect violent reprisals by making it apparent that one’s protest is peaceful, and to unify groups of demonstrators who may not share a common view of the alternative to the status quo (Cf., Ranjbar 2017).

Nevertheless, silence can a successful form of dissent. In what follows I focus on two of its features that promote its effectiveness in the expression of disapproval and disagreement. The first contributes to explaining why silence can be used to communicate censure and disdain. The second may be one of the reasons why silence is often chosen by those who are relatively powerless in a given situation.

In the second section of this paper I have noted that even if we grant that audiences have a defeasible obligation to make manifest their dissent with speakers, it does not follow that such disagreements must be verbally communicated. Here, I want briefly to press the point further by arguing that silence on some occasions can be more powerful than speech in expressing dissent. It has been noted that oppressive speech is often hard to reverse; when appalling claims have been made salient, it is nearly impossible to restore the conversation to the point before their utterance (McGowan 2009; Simpson 2013). Those who have lamented this situation have often focused on verbal objections as way of reversing the accommodation of moves that are oppressive.

There are many factors that make it hard to cancel out the pernicious influence on conversations of speech that subordinates. In some contexts, as I have argued in section 2 above, silence may be more effective than rational dissent. The person, who verbally objects to oppressive speech, because she engages in rational debate, indicates by her actions that the objectionable speech at least deserves to be treated as a contribution to the discussion. The person who, instead, keeps silent in response can succeed in conveying that what has been uttered is beyond the pale. She may thus force the initial speaker to take back what he said. Or, failing that, she may compel him to ignore studiously the claim he just made, if he wants the conversation to continue. Silence is thus a way of censuring those whose speech is perceived as being unacceptable. This kind of silent treatment can be used to silence those whose views are at odds with those of the majority. However, as I indicated above, it can also work as a powerful way of cancelling out some of the effects of oppressive speech.

Finally, eloquent silences, I have argued above, often communicate by showing what one means by them. They communicate because they involve the intention to have an effect on an audience as well as the intention to make the agent’s commitment to a content manifest and to make this very intention also publicly observable. Further, these silences are instances of showing because they enact the contents that they communicate. So, the person, who is silent meaning that she is still mad, shows her annoyance. Her interlocutor can see that she is mad at him, as well as being aware of her intention to make it manifest that she intends to make it publicly accessible that she is still mad at him. Similarly, the person, who keeps silent to highlight the fact that he has been silenced, shows what he means. He intends to make public his protest that he has not been allowed to speak, and to also make it manifest that this is his intention. He does this by displaying the very silence to which he has been confined as an object for others to attend to. Metaphorically speaking he displays his silence on the charger.

Showing is in some circumstances the most effective tool because, unlike telling, it does not require that the target audience trusts the speaker. Ordinary acts of telling require that the receiver of the testimony takes the speaker to be both competent and sincere. However, members of subordinated groups are often, because of prejudice, not credited with the amount of credibility that they are entitled to (Fricker 2007). In addition, members of subordinated groups also often suffer from what Mary Kate McGowan (2014) has identified as sincerity silencing. This occurs when speakers are not recognised as being sincere. Women’s refusals of sexual advances are often interpreted in this way. The person who makes the advance often understands the woman’s ‘no’ as a kind of refusal. But he does not think of her as being serious. Instead, he may presume that she is coy or playing the “hard to get” game. In so far as showing does not require that communicative success is even in part based on a recognition of the speaker’s intention or on an assessment of her sincerity, it is a possible way to bypass some of the negative effects of prejudice that prevent effective communication.

In sum, whilst speaking out is in many contexts the most effective way of expressing one’s dissent from, or disagreement with, prevailing views, there are other circumstances in which silence is an effective way of protesting, refusing or dissenting. In these instances, silence can speak louder than words.40


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Applebaum, Barbara. 2016. “Listening Silence” and Its Discursive Effects. Educational Theory 66: 389–404. doi:10.1111/edth.12172.

Austin, John Langshaw. 1976. How to do things with words. Edited by J O Urmson and Marina Sbisà. William James lectures. 2nd / edit. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Carmona, Armando. 2014. A Silence That Speaks: Ayotzinapa and the Politics of Listening - Toward Freedom. Toward Freedom.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 1991. Black feminist thought: knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Perspectives on gender. 2nd ed. New York ; London: Routledge.

Davis, Wayne. 1992. Speaker meaning. Linguistics and Philosophy 15. Kluwer Academic Publishers: 223–253. doi:10.1007/BF00627678.

Day of Silence (April 27, 2018) | GLSEN. 2017. https://www.glsen.org/participate/programs/day-of-silence. Accessed August 7.

DiAngelo, Robin. 2012. Nothing to add: A Challenge to White Silence in Racial Discussions. Understanding & Dismantling Privilege 2: 1–17.

Dotson, Kristie. 2011. Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing. Hypatia 26. Blackwell Publishing Inc: 236–257. doi:10.1111/j.1527-2001.2011.01177.x.

Ephratt, Michal. 2008. The functions of silence. Journal of Pragmatics 40: 1909–1938. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2008.03.009.

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