Friday, 11 November 2016

On Silence, the Power of Voice, and Politics in 2016

I've been thinking a lot about silence recently, especially in light of the two minutes the UK observed at 11am today in order to honour and remember those soldiers who lost their lives during the First and Second World Wars, as well as every conflict that has followed. Silence is one of the most powerful tools available to us, yet it is so often forgotten in the face of noise and, more importantly, it is routinely underestimated. This has become painfully apparent in light of both the Brexit vote in the summer and the most recent US presidential election. None of the polls predicted the outcome of either of those votes accurately because of a silent mass of individuals who chose not to let their voice be heard until the moment when it really counted - in the polling station.

So often we are told to speak up, stand up, be counted. Both Brexit and the election campaign were dominated by highly vocal voices, whether that sound was coming from an inflammatory right or a defensive left. Both votes were ultimately won by the silent masses. All too often, silence is conflated with passivity but these instances show that being passive is ultimately being active. In an age when mass communication is the bread and butter of daily life it becomes almost impossible to imagine that anyone can be silent. The truth is, and it might feel blindly obvious to say this, we notice the voices we hear and we forget about the ones we don't. It isn't even that we simply ignore the absence of sound - we simply don't even think to think about it.

This is partly why the internet is so important and it is also why the internet can be so easily abused. It is so easy to get trapped in a bubble of the same opinions and the same thought cycles. The internet amplifies certain voices, giving them precedence over others, as well as muting other voices. However, it also makes us forget that the voiceless exist.

Whether the voiceless are voiceless by choice or because they have no access to the internet or other public, we cannot picture them existing. We cannot even begin. This is why it is so easy to underestimate the power of the silent. It's why the pollsters have gotten it so wrong. We don't even know the silent are there.

I don't even know how to go about hearing people who aren't talking, but we need to start. If we don't listen to them they will never listen to us - and the only way we are going to get through this is by listening and trying to understand what we hear.

I hope that this makes sense. I've been trying to unpack my feelings around the presidential election and I don't know if I'm any closer to understanding what happened - but I would like to at least understand why. If you were anything like me, you would have been sat in a blissful bubble, hearing the vile fear spew from the opposition but comforted by voices around you speaking much, much louder. The shock that I felt when I realised my bubble wasn't as representative of the world as I had hoped was just as devastating as the realisation that the world was heading down the path of fear.

So let's listen and try and hear the silence. Let's try to hear the absent voices.

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