In Defense of Silence

On national tragedy, social media, and the importance of time to reflect

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from “Open House for Butterflies” by Ruth Krauss
Poem from Extravagaria (translated by Alastair Reid, pp. 27-29, 1974)

“Keeping Quiet” by Paolo Neruda
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together in a sudden strangeness. . .
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

The morning after the shooting at Pulse Night Club in Orlando, Florida the world was filled with noise. News outlets fighting to be the first to share details, speculating and stretching truths in order to gain relevance in the wake of tragedy. Political figures positioning the events to reflect and build upon their agendas. Twitter personalities using 140 characters to say quite simply that they don’t know what to say. The way that we respond as a collective to major events, tragedy and triumph alike, has changed in the age of social media. We are no longer satisfied with receiving the story, we demand to take part in it. The reasoning behind these knee-jerk responses may be selfish for some, tapping into the social economy of likes, retweets and shares. However for others, it is perhaps due to a fear of silence, an understanding of silence equating complacency, and a history of our country taking silence in response to tragedies affecting marginalized populations. The LGBT community, for one, experienced the devastating effects of our country’s silence during the AIDS crisis of the late 20th century. A true testament to the media’s ability to minimize or maximize issues at hand.

Anthony Marchetti, 7676-7, BR

It is hard to shake the fear of silence. We define silence through the absence of sound, which is perhaps the most tactile and inescapable of the human senses. Sound grounds us in both time and space and alerting us of the occurrences both inside and around us. As artist John Cage famously realized when enclosed in an anechoic chamber at Harvard University, when we are faced with silence we are forced to confront ourselves.

Thus, when tragedy strikes we make noise. We express loudly our grief, our sympathy and our disbelief. However, I worry that there is danger in sound as well. Sound imposes narrative, filling in the gaps that would otherwise be free for us to imagine our own scenarios and reach our own conclusions. By immediately tweeting #blacklivesmatter, #jesuischarlie, or #orlandostrong, we relieve ourselves of the prospect of our own participation, whether active or passive, in creating a hostile world where white supremacy, islamophobia, and homophobia are enabled to thrive. Our expressions on social media take the place of true action. By participating in condemning the events online, we feel a cathartic relief, subsuming our guilt and preventing us from having to challenge our own faults and question the ways we too contributed to these horrific events.

As philosopher Paul Goodman said in his 1971 article for The New York Review of Books, “not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each. There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy. The sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face. The fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts. The alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This…this….” The musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity. The silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear. The noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud with subvocal speech but sullen to say it. Baffled silence. The silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.”

I fear that in contemporary society, we do not give enough time to silence. The type of silence that expresses not apathy, but potential. The fertile silence and pasturing of the soul Goodman speaks of in his article. Between our smart phones, health trackers, and earbuds, we are never truly alone, always consuming, posting and connecting. And settling into this constant contact, we have begun to lose our ability to be alone. Rarely do we find time to be silent and self reflect, to take time to perceive and then make meaning. Steps that would make our eventual responses much more informed, effective and meaningful. Neuroscientists at Stanford University recently demonstrated that it is in intervals of silence that we experience the most intense, positive brain energy, our brains reaching out to collect what we may have not previously perceived. When we confront our fear of silence, we do not hear less, but are instead able to hear more.

Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale A, 1968, Gift of Ione and Hudson D. Walker

The Weisman Art Museum’s feature show this summer is Silence and Echoes, an exhibition that highlights some of the most “quiet”, subtle, and unassuming of the works in the museum’s collection. The works challenge viewers to investigate the qualities of silence, stillness and minimalism. Many of the pieces lack visual imagery, provoking viewers to turn inward and reflect on themselves as they experience the intriguing works of John Cage, Lucio Fontana, Joseph Albers, Lee Bonticou and many others. Like our own perceptions and memories, many of the images in the exhibition appear incomplete, imperfect or disjointed, leaving the viewer to fill in the vacancies with their own meaning and understanding of the world.

See Silence and Echoes at the Weisman Art Museum Saturday June 18, 2016 through September 11, 2016. For more information on the exhibition, associated programing, or to view museum hours and directions visit


Elise Armani is a fourth year BFA candidate studying Studio Art and Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies with a minor in Art History. Elise is an aspiring curator and currently works at WAM as the projects and programs assistant, as well as the gallery learning and education intern. When not at WAM, you can find her at home with a bowl of vegan mac, a book and a lap full of pets. 




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