The Structure of Silence

I confess, as I have hinted before: I have thoughts that I wouldn't dare speak in public. Which includes here, on this blog. Stuff about culture and maybe race and identity and ethics and so on. I envy my colleagues who--I can tell--are able to speak their consciences without hesitation. They all agree with each other, and their only problem is tricking undergraduates into thinking like they do (or: "They are convinced they are correct; and they work hard to share this conviction with others.") I say I envy them. I wonder...

I wonder if maybe I've just chosen opinions guaranteed to keep me aloof, to keep me on the outside. In other words, I wonder if my "politics" (loosely conceived) are really just a means to landing in this peculiar social position?

One of the reasons I half-assedly like Glenn Beck is that he stands on the Lincoln Memorial and says things like, "Speak the Truth, people. Let me tell you, the Truth will set you free -- oh, warning: it'll devastate you first; but it will set you free. Speak the Truth." I like that because I don't speak the Truth. I try to get myself off the hook by remaining deeply interested in concepts that are inherently unspeakable (there can be no duty to speak the unspeakable!), but I feel a sting when Glennbeck says what he says.

So why can't I speak what I think? How bad could it be, honestly? I guess pretty bad, it seems to me. The reason is that to express certain opinions to people who clearly hold different values makes finding a common ground with those people impossible. I have an example that might be useful:

With a topic like abortion, a pro-life person who is unreflective may stand on a stump and make the case that abortion is murder. But a more sensitive person who is, nevertheless, pro-life, might not want to speak about the issue at all for fear of worsening the psychological condition of one of his listeners who, in this case, though he doesn't know it, has had an abortion.

The same delicacy may be required in all kinds of circumstances, then: if the cultural position you are angling against will feel your counter-position as a reproach, then--if you are sensitive to the feelings of others--you may choose to bite your tongue.

This strange structure: where the position is so profoundly ethical that it refuses to indict those who hold different values. This group is easily "framed" as a judgmental, standoffish bunch. Because, well, there always is one ass who holds a poster of an aborted fetus and shouts about murder through a megaphone. So then what you have is a whole "side" (pro-choice) willing to impugn the character of what they perceive to be the other side... and another side that may consist of 90% silent non-judgers and 10% insensitive jerks.

Abortion is not my topic here. I'm talking about everything from work ethic to speech patterns to attitudes toward government and neighbors and so on.

I just find this to be an interesting phenomenon -- this is a fascinating structure to me. It may even be that you bite your tongue so as not to offend me. Perhaps you believe I shouldn't be so something, but you know that any repudiation would hurt my feelings, and so the conversation that might've ensued remains unspoken.

So: don't name the case, but: am I alone in noting this duty-to-silence?


Case in point: the other day I was in the car driving to lunch with some liberal arts colleagues. A piece came on NPR about the upcoming Glenn Beck event. "I heard one of them saying the other day, 'these are some of the finest people on the planet gathered here.' There's no racial tinge to that claim (inflected with dripping sarcasm)." And then another rejoined, "Yes, I think that's the only explanation for this energy: they keep saying, 'Our country has been taken away from us,' and it seems clear that they are simply motivated by racism. There's no other possible motive, honestly -- I mean, what has been taken away from them?" And another: "Yes, well, look at the demographics: not a black face in the crowd tomorrow, I bet." Then the second one spoke again: "The closest I know to a Tea Partier is my brother in law. He was raised in a situation where he had everything he needed; he's never really worked hard; and he simply doesn't want to see the American Dream extended to people who don't look like him." The first said, "These Libertarians are just unthinking and dogmatic--it's best to just ignore that discourse. I think the Democrats shouldn't pay any attention to it." Then the second speaker continued, a moment later: "The new hire in the history department has very problematic politics. He did his dissertation on Eastern European finance and his economics are practically laissez-faire. I was on the committee, and I voiced serious concerns." "Really?," my other (liberal arts!!!) colleagues lamented: "How does someone get through a serious program and still think like that?"

The closest you know to a tea partier, by the way, is sitting in your back seat, afraid to speak, for realistic fear of losing his job.


Insignificant Wrangler said...

This is a post I can get behind. Your colleagues are obviously operating behind a pretty thick terministic screen, so to speak. And you are clearly wise to remain silent. For now.

I'm doing Lyotard with my grad class this week. I know, I know, another-European-French-guy-woa-is-me-for brainwashing-another-generation. But I like Lyotard for the way he reminds us that "science" (and by extension, the entire University) is a political conversation. He makes a distinction between the sciences, which study silent/static objects, and the humanities, that study noisy/dynamic objects (I'm taking liberties, but a gaseous nebula doesn't tell an astronomer that they're tied to an ideological predisposition, nor does a stem cell vote).

Last week I spent a lot of time discussing the rise of the tenure system and Kant's vision for the University. Kant urged for an open and free "public" and predicated such an argument on the notion that ordinary people would never read his books. A few hundred years later, increased literacy rates and access to information pretty much eradicates Kant's supposition.

Casey said...

I actually like Lyotard too. As for Kant, I half-agree. I've always felt that there's literacy, and then there's literacy. I doubt there are very many more people today reading Kant than there were when literacy rates were under 50%. I know I have never really been able to get started in Kant.

But I'm speculating, so--

Insignificant Wrangler said...

I think you can look at what happened in Texas last year as the sign that Kant's literate divisions have broken down such that curriculum is now an open, political struggle. This is precisely what Kant sought to avoid--he hoped that, by carving out a "safe" space for education, we could question without care for the political.

Because its not just a matter of literacy, but of national curriculum. Once "everyone" goes to school, than the meter shifts from "think" to "obey." Kant recognized this, hence why he frames teaching as a matter of obedience more than thinking (executing a duty). But what gets taught is, through rhetorical slight of hand, designated to the realm of the thinking lower faculty.

This is all from two short Kant pieces--the really short essay What is Enlightenment? and this layout for the research university in Conflict of the Faculties. Those were the readings for the first week of my contemporary rhetorics course.

Kevin said...

We've talked this over before on facebook a while back, I think. Still seems what bothers you is not THAT you are silent, but that you suspect--and perhaps also disrespect--your MOTIVES for silence.

I guess, though, sometimes silence itself is a response. When you consistently don't join in to the usual emotings/booings/yeah-ings expected by the others in the car/around the table, the switched-on folks will notice, and be more circumspect with what they say. That is, they will realize they can't simply phone in their comments--are responsible to have reasons, not merely opinions. IN which case, mission accomplished. So a consistent and timely silence can speak--even reproach.

Re: specific tactics for 'breaking' (great image!) the silence: when I feel like talking, and academics (or anyone) start saying the painfully predictable and wildly general things I expect them to say(especially about economics and ethics) I'll respond to their massive, air-bomb indictment with very specific 'inquiries'. For example, to the denunciation of all libertarian economics as beyond the pale, you can mention a scholar they would have to know to be entitled to such a generalization (Coase and Ostrom come to mind). When (as is often the case) they prove to have no earthly idea what/who I'm talking about, I'll mention the year they won the Nobel--perhaps also an article that impressed me and made me "re-think my position" (leaving what my previous position was perfectly vague)-- and drop it.

I like this tactic--the sudden lurch from half-thought generality to singular specifics-- because no matter what happens, it ends up a win-win. If they respond to the easy-going and purely implicit challenge, great! You'll be ready--generally more ready than they are, since they haven't had to fight daily for their opinions like you have (even if only in your own mind). ---More often, a semi-shocked silence descends--the car will suddenly be quiet--the silence that speaks of their sudden realization of the til-then forgotten requirement (the very roots of reason): to be response-able to others. "My God" this silence says, "I can't just blow my top/emote and say whatever I want. I'm not amongst the choir I thought I was. IT'S NOT SAFE HERE. I'm accountable."

Casey said...

Does knowing Elinor Ostrom's work "entitle" someone to untrue generalizations, though? :)

Insignificant Wrangler said...

@Kevin. I really appreciate what you are saying. But, as an assistant professor, I am primarily responsible to my wife and my daughter. Without my paycheck, they don't have a roof over their head or food. The strategies you describe here are dangerous. Personally, I wouldn't take the risk until after tenure. Which is the exact reason why Kant and Humboldt argued for a tenure system--to provide a safe-space to speak without censure. We must endure much hardship to reach such a haven.

Casey said...

Wrangler... but won't it be weird if, after six years of silently toiling or pretending to agree, I finally get tenure and then say, "I voted for Sarah Palin." (Well, or...whatever.) Won't they sort of look at me like I'm insane?: "So... you've lied to us for six years?" And won't I be insane by then?