Listening for Silences: Michael Freeden on the Role of Silence in Political Thinking

In this conversation with RevDem assistant editor Lorena Drakula, Michael Freeden – leading political theorist and author of the new book Concealed Silences and Inaudible Voices in Political Thinking – discusses the various forms of political silences; the problems of superimposing and inventing voices; the effects of the unnoticeable and the unknowable in political thinking, with the aim of understanding the complex and often hidden aspects of silence that shape our political beliefs and actions.

Michael Freeden is an Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Oxford, a Professorial Fellow at Mansfield College, former Director of the Centre for Political Ideologies, and a founding editor of the Journal of Political Ideologies. Best known for his groundbreaking work on the analysis of political ideologies, he has written numerous widely acclaimed books and articles, including Ideology: A Very Short Introduction (2003) and Ideologies and political theory: A conceptual approach (1996).

Lorena Drakula: In the book, you employ a wider understanding of the political than is usual in the existing literature on silences, and even though a large part of the book does connect silences to ideological control, you stress that understanding the political nature of silence means more than only looking at conscious efforts towards silencing particular groups. So, why is this topic of silences important in political thinking, or why should a political scientists be concerned with this broader understanding of political silences?

Michael Freeden: Well, the main reason is that silences are part of everyday discourse or everyday language. They are parts of the messages that we transmit to other people, they are integrated into speech and into practice: they punctuate, they support, or they smooth over differences. So, silence is either absence or presence. You can say – “I recognize the silence here. It’s present” – or: something is missing, it is an absence. In both forms,

…silences perform crucial political functions that are not side constraints, they are not accidental or incidental, but they’re essential to the political process itself.

For instance, silence can be the response to demand for action or inaction: will you consider arming Ukraine? You can be completely silent on this. Pretend that this is not an issue and erase it from the agenda. It can be an enabling or disabling intervention. Silences, therefore, are interventions, and anything that is an intervention is political. That is one of the features of trying to make a difference or trying to prevent a difference from taking place.

Silences can signal tacit consent, or holding back, or simmering resentment, or a failure to put something on the political agenda because it is not noticed, or recognized, or it is not significant.

The right of women to vote was very often silenced because neither men nor women thought this was important in the 18th century, and many women and men across the planet still don’t think this is an issue. Silences can also be a point of rupture in political continuity and rupture is a part of the political – the breaking of something. It can be a focus of rhetorical emphasis or performativity. Silence and elite politics itself are not just verbal or logocentric. They also have to do with the way the people perform and behave, the way that people act. You can look at political behavior rather than listen to political behavior. Both are very important.

Another important issue here is that silence is not only agentic. Both speech and silence are complimentary in a way, but silence can be both agentic and, crucially, non-agentic. And in my recent work on political thinking, I am interested particularly in non-agentic forms of political behavior. So, the aim, that I think for me is the most important as a scholar, is not advocacy, is not critique, but is what Max Weber calls verstehen, understanding. Before we can critique or advocate for something, we have to understand what the raw material is, what it looks like, and how it behaves.

The example I give in my book is the very everyday practice of catching a bus to town. It includes political practices that are completely unacknowledged. When you catch a bus, you don’t think of the political implications, but it is dripping with political significance. You identify an aim: I’m going from A to B. You have a purpose. You stand in a queue, which means that you are engaged in the practice of distributing access to a public good. You purchase a ticket, which means obedience to a law that says you shall not use public transport without paying for it. You ring a bell to stop the driver. You’re giving the driver commands, which is of course, political. The driver, her or himself, also has the power to start or stop the bus. Yesterday, a very kind driver stopped the bus for me even though there was no bus stop because I was late and running. That is, in a way, a political action. Because it’s a control which also affects other people, in this case me, positively. So, power acts in all kinds of mysterious ways or hidden ways that we don’t think about as politics or as the political. I would prefer to refer not to politics, but the political, das politische, which is actually a much better phrase from the German. Basically, politics and the political are all around us and the silences that are interwoven with the political are also all around us.

As you mentioned in the book, one of the main instruments of ideology in this case are these superimposed and invented voices, and one example would be the role of past and future generations in contemporary political and social goals. In a democratic society, we also have this element of the silent majority that is often invoked as a way to legitimize populist acts. So, could you elaborate a bit more on these terms? What are these superimposed and invented voices? How do they manifest an ideological manipulation of silence in different ways?

Let’s take populism, which is a recent and much talked about phenomenon. The populists try to create a world in which certain things are taken for granted through privatizing time. It is their time: “We know what time is. We were there at the beginning. This is our time. Nobody else owns this, it isn’t part of the national story”. Now, this isn’t actually said, but it is implicit. That is one of the many, many ways of superimposing a particular narrative on another narrative. It can be by using palimpsests, which means imposing a particular narrative on another narrative in such a way the first narrative is obscured or forgotten. A typical example would be the difference between (what many people say) was Columbus discovering America, and the flip side – not the discovery of America by Columbus, but the invasion of Barbados by the Kingdom of Castile. Now, these are two ways of looking at the same narrative, but one of them is always used as supervening and superimposed on the other. Of course, the dominant narrative is that of Columbus discovering America, but there is a hidden narrative behind this, which looks at it from the point of view of the recipient rather than the point of view of the initiator.

You find this all the time in historical narratives. One way of superimposing is to cover over gaps. I’ll give another example. In modern Egypt, the Egyptians are very proud of their pharaonic origins, but that was a completely different civilization. Egypt was conquered by the Muslims in the seventh century, and yet current views of Egyptian history include their pharaonic origins, and they are very proud of their pyramids and of this continuity. But there is no continuity! A completely different narrative is superimposed on what actually happened historically. And that is quite understandable. It has got various useful social and political purposes and functions, but these are two separate stories that are artificially welded together.

But you also mentioned the silent majority. The first thing I would say about this silent majority is that there is no such thing as a majority.

There are collections of minorities that together may or may not form a ‘silent majority’. This is an illusion, and this amalgam of separate minorities is rarely aware of their own silences. Again, this is a superimposed device which is used to garner political support.

 “There is a silent majority that supports me” – this was Richard Nixon in 1969. But there is rather a complex collection of pluralistic structures. And their silences can signal agreement, or apathy, or dissent.

This also relates to certain linguistic forms in which silences are artificially created, for example, the phrases: “needless to say” or “self-evident”. You find this in the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident”. Are they self-evident? Well, yes, they are self-evident for the people who wrote the Constitution but not for others. Or the one that makes me the most irritated –

“The facts speak for themselves”. My response is: “Excuse me, I can’t hear the facts speaking at the moment. Can you be quiet so that we can hear the facts?” Facts don’t speak, we superimpose our voices on the facts. They never speak for themselves.

The book establishes that silences can play a fundamental role for the state. On the one hand, in terms of legitimacy, as it is in tacit consent, and on the other hand in terms of legality. The example that you use is the inevitable silences created by constitutions. So, could you elaborate a bit more on this tension? How do these constitutions create silences or spaces for political acts? And as a sub-question of that, is there any imaginable destructive consequence of revealing concealed silences in the political sphere?

Now these are heavy questions, I will try to deconstruct them bit by bit. Let us start with this phrase “winner takes all”, which is typical for the British political system where there’s one winner in the constituency and everybody else is forgotten or silenced after the election. One might just as well call it “loser takes nothing”. Nobody talks about “loser takes nothing”, there’s a silence about this, but that is crucial because the losers are usually more numerous than the winners. You can win a majority with 35% or 40% of the vote. So, what happens to the other 60 or 65%? They are silenced once parliament is filled with those seats.

There are various types of screening and creating taboos over various issues, and many of these have a destructive potential, not just a constructive one.

Some silences are very important to maintain peace and quiet and solidarity, or at least some sort of support rather than anger and disintegration.

The relaxing of taboos, for instance, as we see every day, can trigger religious violence, for example, or fail to protect against national traumas. Some traumas are best left unthought of, unspoken, left to lie. Another form would be that disclosing the rationale in negotiations can actually weaken the case. You have two sides of negotiation, they arrive at some common language, but when they go home, each side presents it in a different way. So, actually you don’t want to expose the entire thinking process because things will collapse. We are having this with the Northern Ireland agreement, or lack of agreement, about the flow of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland and then to the Republic of Ireland. So, each side will give a slightly different version and some things are best concealed. If you reveal them then you sabotage the effort. So, there are instances where these things are actually quite important.

To go back to the linearity question, historically, linearity itself is an invention – it is not only what happens at the beginning but also what happens throughout. For instance, dialectics of binaries are great obfuscators. It isn’t that you have a plus and a minus on certain issues. Marxist analysis—I’m putting this a bit crudely—is a dialectical binary, but between those binaries, there is a vast range of things that happen, and indeed alternative trajectories. Dialectics and binaries don’t allow for the subtleties of discourse and of difference between those two poles, those two extremes.

So, you asked about constitutional gaps. Again, this is crucial. Constitutions have to leave some breathing space for actual events, for daily occurrences to take place. You cannot legislate for everything, and it’s not only you can’t legislate for it – it would be a catastrophe. You know when you fly in an airplane, you look out of the window, you see the wings slightly moving, and you think: are they going to break? No. The opposite. The flexibility is crucial here. If they were completely rigid, the wings would snap. The same applies to constitutions.

If you have complete rigidity of the constitution, if it lays down the rules for everything, it will snap under the slightest pressure. So, you need those gaps where things can grow and change and allow for circumstances and events to fashion contingencies within the agreed framework.

Some silences are, in the end, unavoidable, and researchers can also themselves contribute to coating silences. So, what would you say would be the most suitable methods of scholarly investigation that can integrate and engage with what you call listening for silences?

Well, I think the basic resource we need is curiosity. Researchers and human beings who aren’t curious are missing half of what is important in life. The idea of listening for silences relates to Sherlock Holmes’s famous story regarding “the dog that didn’t bark in the night”. And you wonder, well, why doesn’t this dog bark? There is a reason, we don’t have to go into it now, but this is the question: why isn’t this thing happening? Why aren’t those women complaining? Why is there an assumption that hierarchical creationism or deism is the only way of looking at the world?

It is a question of trying to find out what is absent here, and this requires not only curiosity, but a certain comparative aspect.

So, you have to look over a period of time and ask yourself what are the frameworks, what are the epistemological necessities of a particular period? What are they missing? We also don’t know what we are missing because we are stuck in our own epistemologies and our own assumptions. Maybe in 200 or 300 years, people will look back at us and say: “You idiots! These people did not understand the most basic things about how society functions”. So, it’s the question of the disadvantages of a linear view of political time, which we mentioned, the normality of plural political solutions to a political enigma.

Another thing – the indispensability of fictions, myths, and fantasies. What do they tell us? What are they hiding unintentionally? How can we crack the code? And it is a question not of unmasking, but of decoding a particular way of how people behave, how people look at things, how people think, how people perform. That also requires one other thing, it requires assistance of other disciplines.

I’ve always made the point that the political is not only the domain of politics. In every discipline in the humanities and social sciences, there is always a political dimension, whether this is anthropology, or history, or literature, or theology. Theology is chock-a-block with political assumptions about hierarchy, about commands, about sacred texts. These all have a strong political dimension. So, each of those neighboring disciplines possesses partial tools for unlocking silences. We have to stand back and say: “okay, let’s look at it from this angle, or maybe if we look at it from that angle…”.

Each time we may get a little insight from other disciplines into understanding our own discipline, understanding how we think politically and the type of silences that we preserve, forward, or promote.

This can be conscious or, as I keep saying in this book, unconscious, which is in my mind much more interesting than deliberate silences or silencing. That’s only a small part of what’s happening.

Yes. Especially in terms of existing epistemological apparatuses, there is always, as you discuss, another aspect of that unconscious, where we just do not have the capability at this moment to reveal the silences or to stop concealing them.

Yes. Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist has this wonderful sentence: “It goes without saying because it comes without saying”. It’s a gem of a sentence. It’s beautiful. Because “it goes without saying” is a very common phrase that we use. It goes without saying because it comes without saying!

Another aspect of it is a definite methodological concern here between revealing and inventing silences. So, how do we find the balance between superimposing or inventing voices, and not doing anything about it, or leaving the silences be? We probably cannot be sure, and we will be inventing silences, as with the example of the historiographer who is always superimposing some voices. But there is this very difficult tension between, in post-colonial thought, voices that are being concealed or inaudible, and the subject who is speaking.

Well, this is a crucial aspect in modern anthropology: do we interfere as we explain, as we research certain activities? Of course, up to a point, we do. There is this classic example of an experiment where the subject is wired up to electrodes, and the observer is supposed to press a button. Each time the button is pressed, the electric current is increased – up, and up, and up. The experiment claims it looks at the limits of tolerance, and the wired-up person pretends to scream, yet the experiment goes on, and on, and on. Now, the point is – you can only do this experiment once, because once it’s made public, everybody knows about it, and you can’t repeat it. These are the limits of intervention of the researcher, of scholarship, into the subject matter that you’re studying.

It may be that we invent silences, but the invention of silences is no different from the invention of speech, or the invention of behavior, or the invention in any subject or literature.

Literature flourishes on imaginative invention, which is crucial. Imagination as invention is part of who we are as human beings, so we wouldn’t want to stifle this. And yes, we can get it wrong. We can misunderstand silences that don’t actually exist, but it is very rare. I think, when you look at the hundreds of types of silences that societies are engaged in every day, if you miss out a few, or misidentify a few, it doesn’t matter. Because you are looking at the complexity and bulk of a series of practices and there is always a margin of error in every profession.

Thank you. Do you think there is anything else that we haven’t covered that you would want to stress about your book or the aim of the book – what we, maybe, silenced throughout this conversation?

Well, only to say that the notion of silence is as important as the notion of speech, because silence is always interlaced with speech, or sound. Even as the two of us are talking, I am taking a few silences through which I try to compose my thoughts. Silences can also have rhetorical importance: a teacher asking a question to a group of students, and they are silent. The teacher has to react somehow to that silence, interpret it, negotiate it or retreat from it. In every form of human interaction silences are both destructive and constructive, and sometimes the same silence accomplishes both at the same time – sometimes a particular silence has several different dimensions. Commemoration, for instance, involves solidarity, but can also involve hatred, or sadness, if you have a commemoration of a national tragedy.

There are these simultaneous layers, that we need to unpack as far as we can or disentangle the various dimensions. This is what makes silence so important.

As students of politics, and in this case as students of political sciences, we are always looking at the micro, not the macro. It’s the nuances. It’s the move from the bombastic explanation of ideologies of some single events, or indeed of political thinking as something singular and dramatic, to having a magnifying glass saying: “actually, let’s look more closely at these things, and we see that hundreds of things are happening”. It makes life much more complicated for the researcher, but much more exciting.

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