Are you listening?
In the aftermath of the recent horrific school shooting in Texas, the National Rifle Association held a planned conference. This was the scene outside as the NRA came together to meet. It is a picture that seems to speak volumes about the tension between voice and silence in civil society at this moment in time.
The NRA delegate – in the spirit of the playground – is seen stuffing his fingers in his ears so as to drown out the voices of the protestors. This gesture physically prevents him from hearing them – and, as a social gesture, communicates clearly that their voices are silenced, as far as he is concerned. It is as if he is saying, “You can speak, you can speak at the tops of your voices…but I’m not obliged to hear you. I can stifle your voice in favour of an internal silence – and that action is represented clearly by this gesture.”
But what of the protestors? It seems unlikely that any of them for one moment truly assumed that, by turning up with home made placards and shouting slogans at the delegates, they would change a single mind. It reminds us perhaps that public protest is less about winning hearts and minds and more about two things: first, it generates the illusion that our voice is being heard, that we are not impotent in the face of power; and, second, it offers us a warm sense of community, regardless of how big or small the crowd of protestors might be.
It is possible to read this photo as a significant image of unyielding entrenchment. The NRA member will not countenance limitations on the availability of guns – and he will cleave unbendingly to his “right” to bear arms; the protestors will shout out across the barriers without once reflecting on the futility and performativity of what they are doing, solely because of the personal benefits that being behind the barrier seems to offer them. There is a chasm between these two groups who are actively choosing to assume opposing positions, simply too wide for any bridge to be built across.
The NRA member seeks to silence the protestors by childishly blocking his ears; the protestors smother the silence with their collective voice, knowing deep down that it will not be heard. It might be argued that – for the latter – it is a confused conflation of voice with silence, where people speak but there is no one to hear – or, rather, people very obviously choose not to hear.
Can I just stop you there?
For some, graffiti is an eyesore; for others, it is a legitimate means of expression – or, indeed, an artform. One thing seems certain: it is a way in which some people find voice. In the film Falling Down (1993), the following exchange occurs between the disgruntled salaryman on the cusp of becoming a vigilante and two gang members:
Voice appears in myriad forms. Here we can perhaps see members of a group who feel obliged to contest the power that surrounds them by manifesting their own power in a specific milieu and through a particular voice. That voice is not recognisable to those in dominant groups; it is a vernacular that those people see without acknowledging, other than perhaps to complain about the state of the neighbourhood. Graffiti in this instance is a voice that is not heard by Bill until it is more powerfully articulated to him. And, even then, he continues to seek to silence it by insisting that they abandon their empowering vernacular in favour of the use of a dominant speech and its patterning.
What is particularly interesting here is how – despite appearances – Bill himself has been disempowered. His slide into mental illness results in – and, in turn, is compounded by – the loss of his job in the defence industry. He lives a life in silence – alone; separated from his wife and child; continuing with the routine of the commute despite no longer having a job to go to; separated from the workplace as somewhere where we can sometimes find companionship – and seems now to lack the capacity to find a voice that anyone will respond to, other than asserting himself through unbridled violence.
He adheres to a dominant group despite the fact that they have sloughed him off and abandoned him. He uses the voice of that group – but there is no one therein to respond to what he says, because they do not hear him until he replaces words with bullets. And he denigrates those he then meets who are similarly in a subaltern position…but does not recognise the common cause they share.
On a recent walk, as ever I was drawn to look into this subway that warrens underneath a huge gyratory system. As ever, Morrissey’s voice emerges in my mind’s ear, declaring,
And in the darkened underpass/I thought, “Oh God, my chance has come at last”/But then a strange fear gripped me/And I just couldn’t askThe Smiths, There is a light that never goes out
Ordinarily, this passage is festooned with graffiti, most of it in the form of tagging rather than graphical representations. And this is important, in light of the persuasive argument that tagging is, in fact, a language, often for those from groups that feel excluded. Hence, it is argued,
Tagging is not simply an act of vandalism or violence; it is a social practice with its own rules and codes – a literacy practice imbued with intent and meaning.Laurie MacGillivray, Margaret Sauceda Curwen (2011) Tagging as a Social Literacy Practice. https://ila.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1598/JAAL.50.5.3
This perhaps serves to remind us that compressing a voice, denying it legitimate channels of expression, does not necessarily silence it. In the workplace, it may surface at the water cooler or in WhatsApp groups. Where a voice has something to say, it will find a way to say it. Indeed, where a voice simply wishes to be heard and to release itself from the demi-monde of silence, it will assert itself, notwithstanding the efforts of people to gag it.
Whether you feel sanguine about graffiti or wish that it didn’t exist, each element of it is a manifestation of someone finding their voice: for some, the splodge and squiggle seems perhaps intrusive, a graphical representation of someone shouting in one’s face. But questions surface in light of all of this: With whom is this voice seeking to communicate? And how is it that this has become a means of speaking out for the people involved? Perhaps most importantly, is this voice so silenced that this is the only avenue of expression?
In the local subway, you will hopefully spot an interesting development, namely the graffiti in that space has been heavily redacted by the use of thick black paint. These voices – calling out from their powerlessness and the silence visited upon them – are now actively denied even that limited level of expression.
Who overwrote all of the items in this underpass? Another subcultural group, asserting their territoriality? A group of concerned citizens, taking the law into their own hands? Or someone in authority – the police or local council, for example? Regardless of the agency, one is compelled to observe that the underpass looks no less scruffy in light of this weird palimpsestry. Because of that, one is forced to think that this is a power-oriented interchange around voice and silence.
Lend me your ears
Voice and silence speak volumes about power, regardless of where it resides. Our obsession with hierarchy – important though that is – denies us the chance to acknowledge power as something that simply resides in the complex mesh of our human interrelations. This Foucauldian understanding of the concept asserts that power acts upon us and – in fact – productively subjectifies us, while – at exactly the same time – we are a vehicle for power and others around us and beyond will be affected by that.
The NRA member seeks to silence the protestors outside the conference, a gesture that asserts his power in that context; at the same time, the loud voices of the protestors serve to silence others, by both occupying the sound-space to the exclusion of all other voices and creating a collective voice to which those who wish to align with that community must contribute in respect of what it is that must be said. Each side of the equation is playing with power through the interplay of voice and silence.
The same applies in respect to the graffiti. If we accept that this is an expression of voice rather than just being about teenage “pastiming” or basic mischief, then it reminds us that people find ways to speak even in circumstances where the normal channels seem closed to them. Hence, we might seek ways of silencing others – but that voice will emerge somewhere or other.
More than anything else, we need to listen to the silence and the voices around us – as well as to our own silence and voice. Because our approach to the silence (or silencing) and voice of others speaks volumes about our perception of our presence in the world – and the power that acts on us, around us, and – most importantly – through us, as individuals and through our membership of groups.