by Olivia Harris

Silence is, by definition, pretty impossible to study because it is a non-event.  But silence is also a learned act that is taught by modeling in social groups. In modern American society there are many taboo topics noted by academics from all across the fields of study: money, death, sex and sexuality, incest, class, medical issues, bodily functions, authority and power.  There is public silence maintained by every individual surrounding each of these that acts on most Americans in a way that Emile Durkheim would describe as functional. By not discussing these “controversial” topics openly, people actively feed into a culture of silence that reinforces a shared cultural ideology.  After all, “it only takes one person to produce speech but it requires the cooperation of many to produce silence.” (Norman Pittenger)

That makes silence a social act, and one inherently involved in power.    “Open” or “public” secrets are topics that are generally known and understood but never discussed.  These secrets are a form of public denial that function to protect the community as a whole and are learned through socialization (Zerubavel, 2006).  Often “not here” or “not now” are the phrases associated with such secrets: nobody is denying the existence of such truths, but each individual utilizes silence as a means to keep it from the public eye.  So some form of conversation (spoken or not) is necessary to promote the act of maintaining a public secret.  These secrets are often covered with talk about everything but the specific secret at hand.

So this begs the question: what are these open secrets serving to accomplish?  Who or what are they protecting?

Power functions both explicitly and implicitly in their creation: on the one hand, there are examples of the boss figure who actively shushes a certain topic in the office.  In these situations there is an authority properly defining the conversation, creating a definite frame.  Thus what is not discussed is known because individuals are actively holding their tongues.  So while everyone may have a hunch that women’s salaries are less, talking about that is inappropriate because the boss has said so. And everyone must choose to hold their tongues or deal with the consequences.  And this happened for an entire generation of women.  The first women who spoke up about getting paid less were stigmatized because they were actively breaking a social taboo.  Society valued women less than men, and that’s where the learned silence came from.

On the other hand, there are the more insidious representations of power involved in learned silence.  Rather than, for example, anybody telling a child about someone like the Empress Wu, or any figure from women’s history, she is simply never brought up in conversation.  She ceases to exist in the shared history of mainstream society.   Sex on television provides another example: the audience sees two people kissing on a bed, then the camera pans away and the next scene is the next morning when both are clothed and cuddling.  Sex is assumed, but never seen.  The audience is to pick up these cultural cues that sex has no place in “polite culture.”

That silence came from a social lacuna. Daniel Goleman writes that when individuals learn to ignore a certain subject for any length of time, they create a blind spot in their own minds so that they literally obliterate the information.  Lacuna is “an attentional mechanism that creates a defensive gap in awareness”: sometimes protecting the self from taboo requires literally eliminating it from the line of sight. (Goleman, 107: 1985)   A lacuna may be an individual phenomenon, but it is the result of socialization.  Familial and social groups as well as society as a whole teach individuals these lacunae by keeping certain things from the public sphere.  In order to study silence, this must be counteracted so that social actors can see again the things to which they are responding, rather than seeing only darkness.

Now the dry, academic sociologist in me will tell you that all of this is a way to protect the Face of society.  No, not our American complexion, but rather the presentation we make to the rest of the world.  America is a rich, powerful nation founded by awesome white men who ate raw meat right off the still-breathing calf.  That is the presentation we desire for the rest of the world: the upper middle class American dream that each member of society earned what they got by merit.

Silence, by definition, never rocks the boat.  There are collective or shared identities defined by the groups to which an individual belongs.  Americans, for example, share the identity of a powerful and independent nation in which all people can become anything they wish to be throughout their lifetimes.  Because of this American Dream ideology, discussing the class of an individual person as a hard fact can seem callous. The morays of society must be protected for the sake of all individuals who participate in that social identity, and silence is a tangible way to create a “we” and reinforce it.

“The averted gaze in our culture cushions life in public.  Our encounters are manipulated by attentional frames so deeply embedded in the social fabric that in the main we notice them only when they are violated: a passerby fails to look away as we walk toward him, and his stare stirs in us an uneasy self -consciousness” (Goleman, 210: 1985).  Every one of us, as a social actor, practices silence daily: on the subway, in line at the grocery store, even walking to and from class all Americans keep to themselves and those they know.

So, how does all this theory translate into action—how do we break the silence?  That proves to be more difficult than it may seem, because silence breakers are often known as “whistleblowers.”  Often because silence is a learned and inherently social behavior, it is not only those in power who are threatened by individuals who break the silence.  It is the entire status quo that can be set off balance.  We will need an entire network of people looking outside the frame and trying to find the unspoken truths. ▢

Olivia Harris is a recent Drew University graduate with a degree in Theatre Arts and Sociology.  She is a professional lighting designer and theatrical marketing associate and plays with sociology whenever possible.

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