Sound of silence

December 04, 2018


The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.
The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

WHEN I first heard Simon and Garfunkel’s melodious and philosophical song ‘Sound of silence’ as a teenager, I was confused. How could silence have a sound? The idea sounded absurd and oxymoronic.

But I gradually grasped how, as I repeatedly came across the power of the deafening sound of silence in life. I first came across it still as a teenager as I fell in love for the first time but cultural barriers meant we could not meet and speak. But eyes silently conveyed meanings even though lips stayed silent. I then frequently heard the sound of silence as an adult globally: from the eyes of rape victims expressing culturally induced shame in Darfur and from those of near-death skeletal children expressing pain in famine zones. I found the sound of silence to be more authentic than the sound of words emerging from lips — for lips often lie whereas eyes never do or can.

But beyond transmitting meaning between individuals and among small groups face to face, the sound of silence often reverberates nationally and even globally to challenge tyranny. This tenor of the sound of silence is especially relevant today as a dome of silence is slowly being lowered on society by hegemonic forces in country after country globally. The tools are similar everywhere. Journalists and progressive activists are picked and locked up and even murdered. Media houses and civil society groups are hounded and their operations disrupted. Even social media and day-to-day communication are monitored.

There is paranoia about everything Western, which in reality is an expression of a deep sense of inferiority. Extremist groups are sometimes nurtured whereas progressive groups are seen as existential threats. Faith and nationalism are manipulated to coerce people into adopting the official state narrative. All this is done directly by either hidden state organs or via groups that target progressive voices.

In country after country, a dome of silence is being lowered on society.

The aims are similar too everywhere. They are to impose a monopoly on thought and speech in line with the narrow, security-centric vision of such forces. Even in the most liberal state, society supports the actions of security institutions. But then, security institutions in those countries don’t adopt policies that boomerang against their own population.

Thus, progressive forces must oppose the hegemony of such forces. And with freedom of speech severely restricted in the dome of silence, the sound of silence becomes a powerful tool to spread dissenting ideas. When writers use code names for (over)sensitive institutions, they are using the power of the sound of silence. Writers writing about the crackdown on free speech globally when their real intention is to describe the situation in their home country are using the sound of silence too. And when organisers leave vacant seats on the stage to protest the ban on some progressive speakers allegedly by security agencies at the festival of a great progressive poet, it is the sound of silence too.

Faiz was a great progressive poet who encouraged us to speak out as our lips are free. But inside the dome of silence, one comes across two problems. One sees lips seemingly speaking freely and glibly on TV, but parroting the line of hegemonic forces as the minds connected to them are not free. And where minds are free, the lips may be sealed given the risks to self and family. In such situations, it seems more apt to say that even if your lips are not free, speak out using the sound of silence as your mind is free.

But can a seemingly weak tool like the sound of silence defeat such powerful hegemonic forces armed with the power to silence dissent? Global experiences from Eastern Europe, Latin America and other regions suggest it can. The key to its success lies in the fragile intellectual foundations of all hegemonic orders whose inferior ideas ultimately succumb to more superior progressive ones. They ultimately crumble in the face of dogged dissent or what political scientist James Scott referred to as the weapons of the weak, the sound of silence being one such weapon.

Decades of indoctrination in disciplined state institutions that brook no internal dissent rob people inside such institutions of creativity, alacrity and humanity. Such robotic minds find it difficult to tackle even the weapons of the weak of creative and determined progressive activists. Such activists may not be able to see a clear path to victory but they still persist due to their strong belief in their ideology. They also persist because the sound of silence is the only tool available to them and giving up on it means accepting the silence of lambs. In doing so, they thwart the ability of hegemons to impose the silence of graveyards on society.

The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

Published in Dawn, December 4th, 2018