Silence can serve a lot of roles. It can be forced upon someone, and--as a collective--many voices have been historically silenced, particularly those of racial minorities and women. However, silence is not always a sign of weakness; it can also be a powerful rhetorical choice, both as a defense and as a participatory component of positive discourse.
Someone can choose to remain silent when speech would weaken them. In America, this choice of silence is a right designed to legally protect us. It's also a right that we can use in a variety of situations where the choice to speak could be less favorable, and when invoked in this way, silence is very much an action.
Silence is also a necessary component of conversation. Conversation requires (at least) two voices, and those voices have no space to understand and hear one another without silence. This is why silence is so crucial to listening, and that's a curious thing.
Our world is filled with information: images, audio, video, text. Many of us are tethered to electronic devices that alert us to the most recent news 24 hours a day, and that's news on the global level (I read about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan on my laptop when I got up to pump in the middle of the night) to the very local (my iPhone will tell me when someone comments on a Facebook photo I posted). On any given day, I'll have multiple tabs open across the top of my computer screen. In a matter of minutes I can switch from the article I'm reading written years ago, to the opinion piece written days ago, to the weather forecast updated hours ago, and then go and look at the Facebook feed in real time.
There is certainly no shortage of "talk," but silence has become something of a commodity. And if we do not carve out spaces for silence, do we really have the opportunity to listen?
Listening is important not just for our own personal gain (though it certainly improves the way that we process the information we're consuming), but also from a larger, societal viewpoint. In "Dialectical Tensions of Speaking and Silence," Robert L. Scott writes that speaking and remaining silent are "difficult and dangerous. One strives to be understood, both in silences and speaking, but is often misunderstood. However, from misunderstandings, understandings may arise. One must be patient" (7).
We must run the risk of being misunderstood. If someone is going to truly listen to what we have to say--that is, hear it, think about it, process it, and (often) re-appropriate it to improve his/her own view--then misunderstandings are not only possible, but probable. It is only through continued communication (both speech and silences) that those misunderstandings can be transformed into understanding, and that is where true learning can take place.
Krista Ratcliffe, in "Rhetorical Listening: A Trope for Interpretative Invention and a 'Code of Cross-Cultural Conduct,'" takes this idea even further:
" For when listening within an undivided logos, we do not read simply for what we can agree with or challenge, as is the habit of academic reading (in its multiple guises). Instead, we choose to listen also for the exiled excess and contemplate its relation to our culture and our selves." (203)So, by truly listening with the intention to understand (not just hear, not just find something to disagree with so we can write a new conference paper, not just gather enough to drop into a conversation and prove we've been paying attention), by truly trying to understand, we can find both commonalities and differences in our cultural interactions.
If silence allows us the opportunity to hear someone and recognize (and perhaps embrace) the way that person differs from us while simultaneously viewing the commonalities we share, then silence allows a type of learning that we desperately need. But that learning can only happen if we are willing to listen to voices that we disagree with. Ratcliffe explains "we learn by listening to those who do not agree with us, provided the listening occurs in the context of 'genuine conversation'" (212).
That means that we cannot consume media from only one source and surround ourselves entirely by others who share our views on politics, parenting, economics, etc. It means that the greatest opportunity for learning takes place in the most diverse of environments. How diverse are the spaces in your life? And how silent?