The Virtues of Shutting Up

This article originally appeared in the Center for Public Justice weekly journal Capital Commentary.

Washington, DC is a city of words. American democracy is loud, obese with speech, and bursting with word manufacturers: advocacy groups, public figures, think tanks, newspapers, magazines, blogs, radio stations, talk shows, debate shows, manifestos, political satire shows, endless iterations of the talking head, all congested with opinion. This is nothing new. The sky has been falling since 1776. America has always enjoyed garrulousness.

George Orwell once said, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”[1] This is not entirely true. One of the clearest statements in twentieth-century politics was “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Our national politics is not short on sincerity, but sincerity does not save our discourse. Amidst the babble of point, counterpoint, pseudo-point—the incessant Hegelian dialectic of the news cycle—there is something to be said for not speaking, for silence as a political activity. This is not to say that being silent is always prudent or proper, but rather that specific moments require it. 

What would silence mean for our communal speech? The natural worry is that one’s silence will have its meaning filled in by others, like when suspects take their “right to remain silent” and we assume they are guilty. Another worry is that silence can only represent the failure to act-- a cowardly support of the status quo, a retreat into passivity that cedes space to less desirable voices, an indifference born out of luxury. An imposed silence can stand as a sign of oppression, evidence of injustices that provide certain parties with a monopoly on speech. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “A time comes when silence is betrayal,” [2] and he was right. However, if silence can be a betrayal, then when it’s embraced in the interest of public truth, it also can be a form of faithfulness. 

But American sociopolitical conversation has become one endless filibuster, an obstruction made of constant speech. Here, the failure to be silent is a failure to listen. We ride the dead horses of our words into one conversation after another, assuming our scripts and self-definition must be spoken. Uninterrupted speech produces deficits of trust; the continuous act of speaking supports the fictions we have written and the projections we place upon others. In grinding the gears of our words to a halt, the act of listening provides what Bernd Wannenwetsch calls “therapy for the hermeneutics of suspicion” that mark American life.[3] Failures of trust—the dissolution of social capital—typically begin as failures to listen.

There is little doubt that we do not love our neighbors enough, but Americans are guilty of not loving our words enough: “[L]ove makes language exact.”[4] Abuse of language is fused with abuse of neighbor. The public language of both left and right is a united front against nuance. The nebulous, apocalyptic incoherence that comes naturally to political discourse reduces words’ life-giving capacity. The love that is proper to good politics—identifying and forging shared loves to promote peace and the common good—requires removing abstractions from our speech and remembering the humanity of those with whom we disagree.

Silence lets us consider whether the words we speak are the words we should be speaking. The oddity of a soliloquy of silence can interrupt diseased practices and patterns of our communal language; it can halt the habits of speech that sustain certain habits of thought. In the labor of silence, the terms of the conversation are rejected, certainties undergo questioning, language itself is altered.

Words are fragile. They deserve a break, a sabbatical. Removing the pen from the paper, taking the fingers off of the keyboard, shutting the mouth can help heal and order the words necessary to preserve our life together. The time that silence takes and the cessation of cheap words renew the strangeness of speaking, “open[ing]….up further possibilities” of truthful speech.[5]

-  Adam Joyce lives in Washington, DC and is Content Manager for The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture.

[1] George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.”

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” 

[3] Bernd Wannenwetsch, Political Worship. Cited in Luke Bretherton’s Christianity and Contemporary Politics. This understanding of listening is heavily informed by Bretherton’s work.

[4] Wendell Berry, Standing by Our Words.

[5] Rowan Williams, “Can We Speak the Truth?”