When Silence is Power

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt wrote, “What first undermines and then kills political communities is loss of power and final impotence.” She went on to add, “Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”

In our present media environment, the opposite of this formula may be closer to the truth, at least in certain situations. In these cases, the refusal to speak is action. Silence is power.

The particular situation I have in view is the hijacking of public discourse (and consequently the political order) by the endless proliferation of manufactured news and fabricated controversy.

These pseudo-events are hyperreal. They are media events that exist as such only in so far as they are spoken about. “To go viral” is just another way of describing the achievement of hyperreality . To be “spoken about” is to be addressed within our communication networks. In a networked society, we are the relays and hyperreality is an emergent property of our networked acts of communication.

Every interest that constitutes our media environment and media economy is invested in the perpetuation of hyperreality.

Daily, these pseudo-events consume our attention and our mental and emotional energy. They feed off of and inspire frustration, rage, despair, paranoia, revenge, and, ultimately, cynicism. It is a daily boom/bust cycle of the soul.

Because they are constituted by speech, the pseudo-events are immune to critical speech. Speaking of them, even to criticize them, strengthens them.

When speaking is the only perceived form of action–it is, after all, the only way of existing on our social media networks–then that which thrives by being spoken about will persist.

How does one protest when acts of protest are consistently swallowed up by that which is being protested? When the act of protest has the perverse effect of empowering that which is being protested?


Silence is the only effective form of boycott. Traditional boycotts, the refusal to purchase goods or patronize establishments, are ineffective against hyperreality. They are sucked up into the pseudo-events.

Finally, the practice of silence must be silent about itself.

Here the practice of subversive silence threatens to fray against the edge of our media environment. When the self is itself constituted by acts of speech within the same network, then refusal to speak feels like self-deprivation. And it is. Silence under these conditions is an ascetic practice, a denial of the self that requires considerable discipline.

But if we are relays in the network, then self-sabotage becomes a powerful act of protest.

Perhaps the practice of this kind of self-imposed, unacknowledged silence may be the power that helps resuscitate public discourse.

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13 thoughts on “When Silence is Power

  1. Silence is indeed powerful. I comment as a religious being not a political being. Silence is reflection and an opportunity to communicate with greater forces. It is a relief rom the nagging and muling ego, and a chance to really listen to others. The ego transmits exclusively: the empty compassionate being listens tenderly with positive thoughts and the ability to stand in the shoes of others.
    If careful control of emissions of speech, body and mind could be maintained by those who are truly leaders of our human destiny, social priorities would smoothly be established. After all, true happiness is way beyond the ‘talk’ domaine and doesn’t need such frivolous expression. If we can truly get in touch with our hearts instead of our heads, we will understand that developing unconditional love and promoting universal harmony are our sole mission as human beings.
    But to enable this, we first need absolute self-honesty concerning our intentions. I suggest that most of us need long bouts of silence to truly examine our motivation for saying what we say. We make sounds when we talk, but we fail to cognise the power of those concrete sounds. Sound reaches far beyond the fragility of semantics.

    Thank you for your great kindness is provoking your readers to consider silence carefully. It is a remarkable tool if we use it skillfully.

    ‘Speak clearly and precisely by eliminating unnecessary words’
    (Buddha, Mahaparinirvana Sutra)
    See also: lindenthorp.wordpress.com/2013/09/08/hearing-the-dharma-the-turtle/

  2. I am reading Fahrenheit 451 for the first time in many years since I first read it in high school. Bradbury wrote an afterword in this edition some 30 years after the first printing. He writes something so powerful, relevant today, and very connected to what you post here (and much of which I agree with). Bradbury writes: “There is more than one way to burn a book. The world is full of people running around with lit matches.” Silence, on the other hand. Silence carries with it a power that does not destroy all in its path . Silence allows the room for listening, for coming together.

  3. One thing among many that John Cage showed us is that there is no such thing as silence. In the physical world, silence can only be a concept used as a metaphor for non-existence. In the mental sense, ‘being silent’ means listening.

    For Cage, the way to create a new music, – one that was not participating in the existing industrial systems (which is what I think you’re talking about here) – was to eliminate intent from the creative process. This produces a music that is both natural and in the widest sense, free.

    So what would this mean for your silent activism? It wouldn’t mean make no sound or take no action. It means that in what you do, don’t intend to build a movement, don’t intend to convince others, don’t intend to ‘make the world a better place’, for in doing so, as Cage also said, “you will only make matters worse.”

    In composition, there are techniques for achieving ‘non-intent’. Cage used various techniques of chance operations to create ‘his’ work. It was more a case of creating a framework in which sounds would occur, and in our attention to them, became what we call music. “In the end,” he said, “everything becomes melodic.”

    But in personal or social situations involving human behavior, it is not so easy to do, as humans are more difficult to control than measurements of time and sound. “How do we create a situation where people can be free, without them becoming foolish? My problems have become social, rather than musical.” Cage never solved this problem.

    In short, what I’m trying to say is that it’s not really your sound and actions that are co-opted by the noise machine, Those serve merely as images and soundtrack. What is co-opted is the storyline created by your intentions.

    The solution to this – and I don’t pretend that this is simple or easy – is to act freely, without intent or desire. Make your actions as worthless as the most natural occurrence, like flight of a bird, or the howl of a free wolf; untrappable and utterly useless.

    In a short and profound question (a koan), Cage asked “What is the purpose of purposelessness?”

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