“Silence is argument carried out by other means.” – Che Guevara
“Hello darkness, my old friend,
I’ve come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence.”
– The Sound of Silence, by Simon & Garfunkel, lyrics by Paul Simon
“Darkness isn’t the opposite of light, it is simply its absence.” – Terry Pratchett
“In human intercourse the tragedy begins, not when there is misunderstanding about words, but when silence is not understood.” – Henry David Thoreau
Just as darkness is the absence of light, silence is an absence. We’ve considered the word and the image as propaganda up to this point, so let us pause to consider their antithesis as a form of propaganda. The phrase “[t]he only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” is often attributed to 18th Century Irish born English statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, although what he actually wrote in Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents was that “when bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” Regardless of the apocryphal attribution, the quote goes right to the heart of the issue of silence being a form of propaganda. Like most tactics of propaganda, silence has multiple forms and uses. Let us examine some of these variations on a theme.
What is “silence”? According to Webster’s it is:
silence \ˈsī-lən(t)s\, n.,
1: forbearance from speech or noise : muteness —often used interjectionally
2: absence of sound or noise : stillness
These are the common meanings of silence that automatically leap to mind when one reads the word, but more to the point in discussing propaganda, we need to consider the full definition of the word and even enhance it a little bit. Consider the third meaning of the word “silence” . . .
3: absence of mention: a : oblivion, obscurity b : secrecy
With this fuller definition, it becomes clear that silence is more than the absence of sound or stillness. For discussion of propaganda, let us use an expanded specialized definition to have silence mean not just the absence of sound, but rather the absence of information. All propaganda is aimed at shaping the flow and content of information. With this expanded definition, we can see the broader scope of silence as a propaganda tactic. As you will see, this can lead to an interesting contradiction.
The first use of silence as a tactic is what you’d expect and the traditional definition of silence: the “No Comment” maneuver. You see this all the time coming from Hollywood and the entertainment industry as well as in the political arena. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t and this is dependent upon a variety of factors. The public’s perception of the speaker, the relative severity and the public or private nature of the topic not being discussed, any associated value loading that can go with a scandal, how amenable to obscuration or obviation is the topic in general and are there any related topics currently drawing the public’s attention that may either attract or detract attention are some of the mitigating factors that influence how well playing the “No Comment” card will work out. Let us consider a couple of examples from both the entertainment and political realms and why or why not they succeeded.
Movie stars are well known (or not) for their scandals (real or imagined) popping up from time to time in the tabloid press. Very often, attempts to mitigate the damage of an embarrassing disclosure do more harm than good. An example of this is the current Kristen Stewart/Robert Pattinson/Rupert Sanders story. After photos of Stewart and Sanders (a married man with children) surfaced, naturally her relationship with her Twilight co-star Pattinson became somewhat complicated. In an effort to mitigate the damage, Stewart made a very public apology to Pattinson. This effort backfired as she caught criticism for everything ranging from the public nature of what most would consider a private message to the content for not being apologetic enough concerning the impact on Sander’s marriage and children to the impact the negative press would have on the forthcoming installment of the Twilight series. This in turn led to speculation that the studio might be reconsidering her for future roles as well as much distress among the Twilight fans. To complete this study in contrasts, consider the recent development in this story where Stewart (possibly after taking advice from her former co-star and actress/director well acquainted with the silence strategy, Jodie Foster) is now refusing to answer questions about her and Pattinson’s relationship.
In the political arena, silence is playing a larger part than usual in the Presidential campaign. The Romney campaign is trying silence as a tactic on his business dealings, his tax returns and the more extremist views of his choice in Vice Presidential running mate Paul Ryan. So far this application of the tactic has generally backfired miserably. For his business dealings, silence makes him look like a liar and a fraud considering it is his past business dealings that make up the bulk of his alleged experience and skill set to lead a nation. With his taxes, silence simply makes him look like he has something to hide in addition to the arrogance he has displayed on the issue showing him to be massively out of touch with the American people and an elitist with remarks about “you people” and “trust me”. With silence about the points of view of his running mate, Paul Ryan? It is early in the use of that strategy to see how well it will work, but early indications are it is going to only serve to highlight Ryan’s extremist views as the media and the public start asking questions. Another spectacular backfire as Ryan’s stance come under greater scrutiny including his budget proposals (even attacked by Conservative King of Trickle Down Economics – David Stockman), the privatization of Social Security, replacing Medicare with a voucher system (also a form of privatization), cutting funding and participation in Medicaid, his dubious and manifestly politically expedient disavowal of his nearly life long love for Ayn Rand and all things Randian, his hypocritical support for economic stimulus when Bush was for it but attacks on it when it is Obama for economic stimulus, and reports of general dissatisfaction among voters of all persuasions about his selection.
There is a second variation on silence as a tactic and that limited silence or partial disclosure. A fine example of this is the career of Michael J. Fox in its post-Parkinson’s phase. Since his diagnosis, he was careful with the media but remained largely silent. After announcing his condition, he carefully controlled his media presence until the scope and effect of his condition and the effectiveness of his treatment could be assessed. What started with silence became partial disclosure of his progress, using his celebrity to draw attention to the condition and support for research, and eventually a slow and partial reintroduction into promoting active acting projects. This illustrates that in the process of information management, what you don’t say and when you don’t say it can be as important to image management as what you do say and when you say it, and that balance in tactics can be crucial.
The third use of silence is a close variant to the “no comment” form of silence and that is the tactic of externally enforced silence. Oddly enough, this tactic can arise from tactical missteps as well as situational elements and there is a perfect example of this going on in the current Presidential campaign. Consider Mitt Romney’s camp and their inability to mention one of his (few) great successes in political leadership without having it blow up in their face and that is the so-called Romneycare he shepherded to life while Governor of Massachusetts. Their silence on this issue is externally enforced because of the similarities to Obama’s ACA plan. Romney cannot attack Obama for actions incredibly similar to actions he took as governor and then tout his actions as governor without tactically shooting himself in the foot with his target audience.
The fourth use of silence is where silence as the absence of information comes to the forefront as well as the previously mentioned interesting contradiction. Sometimes silence can be noisy. Another way to create silence in the sense of an absence of information are the strategies of obfuscation and distraction (which can employ many tactics from white noise to straw men to simple misdirection). In this regard, when evaluating information it is just as critical to ask “what does this speaker not want me to think about or discuss” as it is to look at the explicit content of what they are saying.
Consider in a broader media sense the contrast between the television news coverage of World War II, Vietnam, the first Gulf War, and Iraq/Afghanistan. The media kept silent about a great many details of World War II and in those days of analog media dominance, it was possible to maintain such silence. To the credit of those in government who controlled the flow of information during World War II, the bulk of what was kept silent was validly done so in the name of operational security and once Allied troops were out of danger fuller disclosure was usually forthcoming. Contrast this with the media coverage of Vietnam and the then relatively new medium of television. The collapse of public support at the end of the Vietnam war was due in part to the inability of the government to exert control over television. Once the images of what was really going on over there and the cost it was taking on our citizen draft military with daily visions of caskets being broadcast into a majority of American homes, it was only a matter of time before any public support for that war evaporated.
Fast forward to the first Gulf War. The war mongers in government had learned their lesson from Vietnam and the Draft was not a concern with a volunteer force – removing some of the direct impact into American homes from a war abroad. True, many civilians were against conscription, but getting rid of it came with a hidden cost to civic duty and a hidden opportunity for the unscrupulous to make war easier because of less public challenge. Add to this a high level of embedded journalists, a whole new bag of technology that made showing night actions possible and a theater conducive to night actions and relatively low casualties and you get the first war sold to the American public as essentially a video game. This war as an exercise in modern media control can only be termed a success from the point of view of policy hawks. Silence was kept where needed to keep public support flowing and the flow of information out was carefully controlled. The effectiveness of pro-war propaganda was back to WWII levels.
Now comes the invasion of Iraq. America was reeling in the aftermath of 9/11, but anyone who focuses on intelligence in looking at foreign policy issues knew that Iraq didn’t have a damn thing to do with those heinous terrorist attacks. The general public was in a state of fear and the Bush Administration seizing upon that opportunity forced through Congress the purposefully vague Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) as well as the arguably prime facie unconstitutional Patriot Act. Using their media savvy sharpened by the Gulf War, little if any media mention was made of the pure irrationality of attacking Iraq was mentioned during the lead up to that action and once again the television was ablaze with video game warfare images. However, that silence about the cost and irrationality of this invasion had to deal with a change in technology analogous to what transpired in Vietnam with television: the Internet. Although it had technically been around for a while, the World Wide Web hadn’t reached maturity until roughly the same time the war in Iraq started. Due to the very nature of the medium, government found it difficult to control the message and enforce silence, but also due to the massively increased number of media outlets, the impact of negative reporting of the true costs of invading Iraq were somewhat diluted compared to the impact of television on Vietnam. Combined with the lack of impact created by a conscription military, a situation ensued where dissent against the invasion slowly built though the alternative information channels the World Wide Web provided, but instead of ending the war in 13 years (1962-1975) in Vietnam, the pressure to end the invasion of Iraq took 8 years (2003-2011) to “officially” end – seemingly an improvement. But is it? We still have troop presence there so anyone paying attention knows that it is not over. A lesson learned in Vietnam is the euphemistic language of calling a war something other than what it really is, like “police action”, “liberation”, and “nation building”.
This is not to mention that we are still in Afghanistan, a country well known to military history buffs both professional and amateur to be a place practically impossible to occupy due to both terrain and a fractured culture in part created by that terrain. So here we are, still involved in two wars, one an invasion of questionable legality and unquestionably bad tactics (unless you’re in the oil business) and the other an attempt at occupation against a legitimate target but a target that historically has been shown highly resistant to occupation strategies. Unlike Vietnam though, the propaganda masters in government rapidly adapted to the World Wide Web. If you look only at MSM Web sources for news, you might be minimally aware of some sanitized facts of what is going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you only watch television, you might be hard pressed to even realize there are two wars going on at all. In either case, you can hear the media’s politically driven drumbeat starting already for war with Iran.
The propaganda masters have learned their lessons and put them into application. Where they could not directly silence, they sowed confusion. Where they could not sow confusion, they manufactured false support with tactics like hiring propaganda trolls and astroturfing. Where they could not manufacture support, they outright lied. And when their lies where exposed by whistle blowers like Bradley Manning and Wikileaks, they resorted to that old standby of fascists and totalitarian regimes to enforce silence about their misdeeds and malfeasance in representing the best interests of the general citizenry: threats and intimidation.
In being or seeking to become a critical thinker and a responsible citizen in the age of modern media and propaganda techniques, silence as an absence of information is your enemy. It can be overcome by diligent research, practiced evaluation, supporting whistle blowers who bring the public evidence of institutional and personal wrong doings by government, industry and its members and to practice through and proper analysis (in context) of as many sources of information as your mind can handle. But is it enough to overcome the silence of information to make your decisions about such matters? As George Orwell so famously noted, “Speaking the truth in times of universal deceit is a revolutionary act.” Is it enough to find the truth behind the silence? Or is it your civic duty to speak truth to power?
The answer is quite clear if you are following the sage advice of Marcus Aurelius and “seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed.”
What do you think?
Note: This column was originally published at Res Ispa Loquitur (jonathanturley.org) on August 19, 2012. It has been re-edited for presentation here.