Speech is free and silence is golden

Silencing is generally considered a bad thing. Which is quite right, considering how many people still have to fight for their voices, and demand to be heard. It is not okay to silence people. That should go without saying.

The problem is, it seems like very little can go without saying any more. The right to free speech is huge and crucial, so crucial that people die for it. But we do also have a right to silence. And I am profoundly disturbed by the idea that an absence of speech should be denied, interpreted or condemned.

I’m specifically thinking of the way members of a group (or at least some groups) are expected to denounce a member who behaves badly, or be tarnished by the association. Thus, there seems to be an idea that all Muslims, in general and particular, should denounce the Charlie Hebdo murders. (There are 1.6bn Muslims in the world. This is going to clog up Twitter something rotten.) Anyone who spends any time on the internet or reads the news will be able to supply their own examples, large or small. “There were calls for X to condemn Y…” “Are you seriously okay with what she said? Well, why haven’t you said anything then?” “I can’t believe that anyone who cares about Z wouldn’t speak out!”

I am bang alongside people condemning bad behaviour, obviously. I start to feel uncomfortable when people demand other people should join them in condemning bad behaviour (especially since bad behaviour usually isn’t as clear cut as mass murder, and it’s not unknown for crowds to be wrong). And I get very worried indeed when not denouncing an offence is treated as tacit support for that offence–so that if you don’t join in the denunciation of someone who said or did a thing, that suggests you agree with the thing they said or did. So-and-so hasn’t said anything? Well, that looks bad… (It is, incidentally, noticeable that the demand to speak out never seems to be satisfied. Not enough people have denounced the offence, or they haven’t done it strongly enough, or they spoke out earlier but they ought to do it again right now because, you know, my outrage.)

There are plenty of reasons individuals might not ‘speak out’ against something that aren’t, “Hey, an atrocity, cool!” Sometimes people haven’t heard about whatever it is. Sometimes they think that an Internet status update is not a worthy response to, say, genocide. Sometimes they have a nuanced opinion that will take a while to process, or they haven’t worked out what their opinion actually is yet, or they don’t feel they know the whole story. Sometimes they feel that their opinion doesn’t need to be publicly stated, whether because they aren’t actually responsible or involved, or because it’s just not that interesting. Sometimes they don’t have an opinion at all.

Sometimes people might be afraid to speak for personal or professional reasons, and that fear might be real and valid. Sometimes they might have been advised that “anything you say will just make it worse”, and all too often that’s true.

Some people don’t want to be drawn into the argument in the first place. That’s a valid choice that deserves respect. We aren’t obliged to engage with every topic, even when we feel strongly about the subject, and we’re probably happier when we don’t.

Sometimes people actively choose to shut up. That might be because they’d rather treat an outrage with silent contempt or deny it publicity. The most irritating and effective thing you can do to a run-of-the-mill troll is ignore them. But also, sometimes people in privileged groups need to shut up and let others talk, amplify their voices rather than adding our own, clear a space for marginalised people. If our own speech is valuable, everyone else should get a go too.

Sometimes people would rather listen than talk. That’s actually quite important in a conversation. My grandmother used to say, “This is why you have two ears and one mouth,” and, like all grandmothers, she was right.

Be silent or let thy words be worth more than silence. (Pythagoras)

Nobody should be silenced. Actively recruiting popular support can be a huge force for good, as long as we don’t preemptively damn those who don’t sign up. But if we value speech, we should also respect the choice to be quiet, whether people are listening, thinking, or choosing not to engage for any of a million reasons. Silence is not consent. And insisting that people speak or be damned is a way of controlling their voices–which seems to me the opposite of what free speech is about.

After all, it’s not like the Internet is going to run out of opinions any time soon.


KJ Charles is rarely short of opinions, truth be told. Look out for Jackdaw, coming in February, and A Case of Spirits, a free story available now.