Can we speak in/with silence?

Maidul Islam*

Kolkata, August 26, 2016 (Alochonaa): In the world of theory, six big questions of human life could be identified. 1) What is there/going on in the world? (‘What’ questions, related to understanding the world). 2) Why are things there/going on in the world? (‘Why’ questions, related to explaining and interpreting the world). 3) Will something that is currently going on continue to go in future? (‘Will’ questions, related to predicting the world). 4) Is that which is there/going on good or bad, right or wrong? (Questions of ethics). 5) In such a context, what am I suppose/ought to do? What is to be done? What should/must be done? (‘Should’/ ‘Must’/ ‘Ought’ questions, which are essentially normative questions). 6) Who am I? Who are we? (Questions of Metaphysical self-knowledge).[1] The first three questions are the concerns of explanatory theories. The next two (fourth and fifth) questions are at the heart of normative theories. The sixth and the final question is the central question of contemplative theories.[2]

In an age of profound dominance of the powerful media, German political scientist, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann tried to understand how and why people remain silent on many matters of public life.[3] She examines public opinion as a form of social control in which individuals, almost instinctively sensing the opinions of those around them, shape their behaviour to prevailing attitudes about what is acceptable and what is not.  She understands the phenomena of silence through her conceptual apparatus of ‘spiral of silence’ through the prism of empiricism and from the vantage point of a behavioural political scientist. She argues that people remain silent with their ‘quasi-statistical organ’ or the ‘sixth sense’ after tallying what society in general is thinking or feeling. In this regard, people remain silent for primarily two reasons. 1) Fear of isolation from the status-quo (majority opinion or influential status-quo). 2) Fear of reprisal with a sense of extreme loss (loss of job, status, vindictive attitude from the status-quo etc.). The tendency to become silent gives rise to a community of ‘silent majority’ where the influential coterie of powerful might not always be right/correct and numerically, the powerful might be a minority. Since, the general public is averse to speak/protest against the status-quo, the rule of the status-quo remains unchallenged and gets sustained as the ‘silent majority’ is not interested to speak up against the power bloc. Neumann argues that all of these happen in a context of what she calls the ‘pluralistic ignorance’ (people’s mistaken idea of what public opinion really is because they tend to think that everybody thinks like them) while the media disproportionately represents a mix of opinions without taking into account of various opinions’ strength or merit in the society.

However, Neumann argues that only two kinds of people are exceptions to this general rule/principle of silence. Firstly, there are hard-core nonconformists who are already rejected for their beliefs and lose nothing by speaking out. Secondly, avant-garde (intellectuals, artists, reformers), who are opinion makers but are isolated minority, who not only think about the past and the present but also about the future and are convinced that they are ahead of their times. In this respect, she was interested in the above mentioned first three big questions of explanatory theory in order to ‘understand’, ‘interpret’ and ‘explain’ why people remain silent on substantive issues while hinting at ‘predictability’ of people remaining silent under similar conditions. In this regard, like a behavioural political scientist, she seems to suggest a generalised and universal theory while ignoring the normative and contemplative concerns over silence. That is to say, she is not interested to ask the ethical question whether silence is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or why should a person be silent or why should not a person protest by breaking her/his silence or what are the larger implications of being silent at a given point of time.

Although recognising the merit of the concept of ‘spiral of silence’, Neumann’s theory has been criticised on the following grounds. 1) The assumption that people’s silence is because of fear of isolation might not be always true. People might be silent for shyness, disinterest, or a desire not to embarrass the person with an opposite viewpoint. 2) Reliance on the hypothetical test to measure willingness to speak out. In other words, there is scant empirical evidence to prove whether there is actual willingness of the people to speak out as opposed to hypothetical willingness/non-willingness. 3) Neumann has focussed more on a general national climate rather than reference group opinion as people tend to speak more within their families or among their known friends than in the public without a known audience.[4]


It must be borne in mind that Neumann has a liberal ideological underpinning as she draws upon the insights of several Enlightenment thinkers from 17th to 19th centuries like John Locke, David Hume, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville. In this respect, she does not give a theory of resistance and revolution. In other others, she does not convincingly explain why people resist or revolt. Rather, her theory can be best served to explain the status-quo. In contrast, there are compelling concepts and ideas by the Left-wing thinkers from Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, Noam Chomsky, Jacques Ranciere and Ernesto Laclau to analyse both the phenomena of silence and protest/revolt. We can remind Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ famous proclamation in The German Ideology: “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”. Why the ideas of ruling class are accepted by the people at large to make it ‘ruling ideas’? This was explained by Antonio Gramsci with his concept of hegemony.[5]


In a simple Gramscian sense, ‘hegemony’ is a rule with consent where the ‘spontaneous’ consent of the ruled is earned by the ruling power bloc by either superior position and function of the rulers (often prestige and confidence historically enjoyed by the rulers) or coercion/direct domination/command by the power bloc in ‘legally’ enforcing discipline on those (ruled) who do not give ‘consent’ either actively or passively.[6] In this respect, the structure of hegemonic power is a complex relationship between ‘dominance’ of the elite and the ‘subordination’ of the subaltern.[7] However, dominance is again a complex of ‘persuasion’ and ‘coercion’, while the complex of subordination includes as its elements ‘collaboration’ and ‘resistance’.[8] Thus, hegemony is maintained through either persuasion or coercion by the ruler over the ruled or collaboration of the ruled with the ruling power bloc. It is only the element of ‘resistance’ within the subaltern that foregrounds the possibility of counter-hegemony. Nonetheless, hegemony of the power bloc is never complete since any dominant discourse is necessarily incomplete, which means that any form of hegemony would be always contingent and momentary[9] and thus hegemony ‘epitomises the elite’s dream.’[10] It is the inability of the hegemon to fully hegemonize a given political field that gives scope for a counter-hegemonic movement or resistance by the dominated/ruled against the hegemon.


In this respect, for Althusser, the media or communications systems (press, radio and television, etc.) along with family, religious institutions (church), judiciary, political parties, pressure groups (trade unions), the educational institutions (the system of the different public and private ‘schools’), the cultural sectors (literature, the arts, sport, etc.) as ‘ideological state apparatuses’, manipulate the psyche of individuals and groups in a society to accept the dominant norms and forms of capital accumulation and reproduction.[11] Similarly, the media is being responsible for what Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky calls ‘manufacturing consent’.[12] According to them, the news media actually betrays their own usual image or of the general view of being diligent, meticulous, cantankerous, obstinate, and ubiquitous in their search for truth and defence of justice. Rather, in actual practice the mass media defends the economic, social, and political agendas of the privileged groups that dominate both the nation-state and the global order.


For Ranciére, people remain silent as a result of domination as he argues that ‘there is only the order of domination or the disorder of revolt.’[13] For Ranciére, disagreement and dissensus in any society are given and inevitable for it is not just a different form of opinion within a friendly discussion but it is a direct confrontation and an antagonistic relation. According to him, disagreement is neither misconstruction nor misunderstanding but ‘a determined kind of speech situation: one in which one of the interlocutors at once understands and does not understand what the other is saying.’[14] In this respect, disagreement is the first and foremost concern of politics where the ‘discussion of an argument comes down to a dispute over the object of the discussion and over the capacity of those who are making an object of it.’[15] In this way, disagreement is also a feature of democracy where multiple political actors while arguing with each other also at the same time disagree among themselves. On the other hand, the essence of politics according to Ranciére is the ‘manifestation of dissensus’.[16] Dissensus is not simply a confrontation between interests and opinions but a demonstration of a political argument in such a way that the argument is counted as a valid argument.[17] In this regard, it cannot be an exaggeration if one concludes that democratic politics always encounters both disagreement and dissensus. However, we are told that we do not live in democracies but in ‘states of oligarchic rule’[18] where there is no such thing as ‘democratic government’ since the‘[g]overnment is always exercised by the minority over a majority.’[19] In this respect, the idea of representation in ‘representative democracy’ is actually ‘an oligarchic form’ where the idea of voting was originally ‘the expression of consent’ to the effective implementation of state power than a noble device of democracy.[20]


Ranciére’s, disagreement and dissensus are close to Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s theorization of antagonism as ‘limit of all objectivity.’[21] The classic philosophical position/situation of antagonism emerges when both sides see the other side as completely irrational and hence there is a limit of any objective understanding of each other’s position. For Laclau, antagonism is constitutive of any society. Here, it should be borne in mind that while antagonism is a friend/foe relation which is a ‘struggle between enemies, agonism is struggle between adversaries.’[22] The agonistic model of democratic politics does not perceive the opponent ‘as an enemy to be destroyed but as an adversary…whose ideas [are] combat[ed] but whose right to defend those ideas [are] not put into question’ because ‘an adversary is a legitimate enemy.’[23] In this respect, as Chantal Mouffe points out that ‘the task of democracy is to transform antagonism into agonism’ as antagonism ‘is a we/they relation in which the two sides are enemies who do not share any common ground, agonism is a we/they relation where the conflicting parties, although acknowledging that there is no rational solution to their conflict, nevertheless recognize the legitimacy of their opponents…[which] means that, while in conflict, they see themselves as belonging to the same political association, as sharing a common symbolic space within which the conflict takes place.’[24] Therefore, if democratic politics in the true sense of the term, is available in a society then there is no reason why people would not speak up. In that case, even if people speak, agonistic difference and disagreement can certainly be one form of ignoring the other by the power bloc while giving legitimacy to the ‘other’ argument with a firm conviction apart from making the ‘other’ argument, redundant. This was precisely Neumann’s point regarding the persistence and prevalence of the status-quo even if the hard-core nonconformists and the avant-garde do not remain silent.


In this regard, I shall argue that the figure of the avant-garde and in the communist parlance of the ‘vanguard intellectual’ is not very different from the idea of the messiah. The messianic project perfectly gels with the guruvadi tradition in the Indian subcontinent where ordinary citizens are constantly given moral and political preaching by an ‘enlightened few’ from the top. This guruvadi and the messianic project also creates conditions for a different form of idolatry, namely, iconoclasm. The basic premise of such a messianic project is that the ‘messiahs’ know much better than the people. This is an elitist political tradition, which is as old as Plato’s ‘philosopher king’ in The Republic[25] or the idea of Prophet and avatar in many religious discourses and also has its traces in the Leninist model of the ‘vanguard party’ having advanced consciousness than the people. This is not to argue that the leaders of various protest movements are themselves elites. Rather, many leaders of myriad protest movements actually belong to subaltern classes. The issue at stake is something different. It is the existence of a hierarchical structure with an exclusive domain of the so called ‘enlightened’ leadership who can decide the fortunes of great number of people on behalf of the masses is what can be called as an elitist political tradition. In such a context of elitism prevalent in the air, is it not fair to listen to what the anti-elitist political project of a revolutionary black man in Fanon has to say?


Leader comes from the English verb ‘to lead’ meaning ‘to drive’…The driver of people no longer exists today. People are no longer a herd and do not need to be driven. If the leader drives me I want him to know that at the same time I am driving him…[Thus] we must first and foremost rid ourselves of the very Western, very bourgeois and hence very disparaging idea that the masses are incapable of governing themselves. Experience has proven in fact that the masses fully understand the most complex issues.”[26]


In other words, Fanon is not only a critique of leadership based movements but also hints at formations of leaderless movements. Indeed, such leaderless protests are also being witnessed in contemporary India as in the public protests against the Delhi gang rape in December 2012, massive demonstrations in Delhi streets, demanding justice for Priyadarshini Mattoo and Jessica Lal. Similarly, such leaderless public protests have been also witnessed during the global demonstrations against wars in Afghanistan[27] and Iraq,[28] the Arab Spring,[29] the street riots of London as a result of what David Harvey calls ‘feral capitalism’, the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011,[30] several anti-austerity protest rallies in Europe[31] and the 2013 Shahbag protests in Dhaka in favour of the death penalty for the 1971 Bangladesh war criminals and a call to ban the Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami.[32] These contemporary leaderless movements carry the legacy of similar leaderless movements like the Paris Commune,[33] the eight hour day labour movement in the Chicago’s Haymarket in the late 19th century,[34] and the student revolts of May 1968 in Paris.[35] In all these movements, one hardly finds an iconic leader who drives these movements. Although, some of the anti-austerity movements in Europe were led by trade unions and coalition of parties yet no single leader was the epicenter of those protest movements.


While talking about sati-suicide of Bhuvaneshwari Devi in 1926 late colonial North Calcutta, the postcolonial literary theorist, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak famously argued that ‘the subaltern cannot speak’.[36] Extending Spivak, we would argue that even if the subaltern speaks with an ‘authentic voice’, dominant loud voices of the metropolitan self (read empire) suppresses/silences the voices of the ‘other’ (read plebeian victims), which gets either displaced or unheard.[37] Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century summed up his path breaking book of analytical philosophy, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in the following words: ‘What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.’[38] Silence also speaks.

*Assistant Professor in Political Science, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. This is a revised version of a Speech delivered in a Public Dialogue titled “In a Spiral of Silence” on 20th August, 2016 in Dhaka. The dialogue was organised by the Department of Media Studies and Journalism, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on Bengal history. Please send us your submission at



[1] Rajeev Bhargava, ‘Why Do We Need Political Theory’? in Rajeev Bhargava and Ashok Acharya (eds.), Political Theory: An Introduction (New Delhi: Pearson, 2008), p. 19.

[2] Ibid., pp. 29-31.

[3] Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, ‘Spiral of Silence: A Theory of Public Opinion’, Journal of Communication, Vol. 24, No. 2 (June 1974), pp. 43-51; The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion—Our Social Skin, 1984, 2nd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993).

[4] Emory A. Griffin, ‘Spiral of Silence of Elisabeth Noelle Neumann’, Chapter 29 of Communication: A First Look at Communication Theory, 1991, 7th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2009), p. 380.

[5] The innovative concept of ‘hegemony’ can be seen in Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971). The post-Marxist elaboration of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony can be found in Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985). A further theoretical elaboration of the concept of hegemony particularly in postcolonial contexts can be seen in Ajit Chaudhury, Anjan Chakrabarti and Dipankar Das, Margin of Margin: Profile of an Unrepentant Postcolonial Collaborator (Kolkata: Anustup, 2000).

[6] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith [1971] (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1996), p. 12.

[7] Ajit Chaudhuri, ‘From Hegemony to Counter-Hegemony: A Journey in a Non-Imaginary Unreal Space’, Economic and Political Weekly: Review of Political Economy, Vol. 23, No. 5 (January 30, 1988), p. 19.

[8] Ibid.

[9] For an elaborate theoretical analysis of hegemony, its limits and incompleteness see Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.

[10] Chaudhuri, ‘From Hegemony to Counter-Hegemony’, p. 19.

[11] Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1971).

[12] Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, 1988, New ed. (New York: Pantheon Books, 2002).

[13] Jacques Ranciére, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), p. 12.

[14] Ibid., p. x.

[15] Ibid., p. xii.

[16] Jacques Ranciére, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, ed. and trans. Steven Corcoran (London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 37-38.

[17] Ibid., pp. 38-39.

[18] Jacques Ranciére, Hatred of Democracy, trans. Steven Corcoran (London: Verso, 2006), p. 73.

[19] Ibid., p. 52.

[20] Ibid., p. 53.

[21] See Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics [1985], 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2001), p. 122.

[22] Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 102-103.

[23] Ibid., p. 102.

[24] Chantal Mouffe, On the Political (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 20.

[25] Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. with introduction and notes by Francis MacDonald Cornford (London: Oxford University Press, 1941), pp. 175-263; Sean Sayers, Plato’s Republic: An Introduction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), pp. 93-102.

[26] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox, Foreword by Homi K. Bhabha and Preface by Jean Paul-Sartre (New York: Grove Press, 2004), pp. 127-130.

[27] Elizabeth Becker, ‘A Nation Challenged: The Protest’, The New York Times, 1st October, 2001.

28. Patrick E. Tyler, ‘A New Power In the Streets’, The New York Times, 17th February, 2003; ‘Anti-war protests span the globe’, BBC News (online) 22nd March, 2003; ‘500,000 March Against Bush in Largest Convention Protest Ever’, Democracy Now, 30th August, 2004.

[29] Farhad Khosrokhavar, The New Arab Revolutions that Shook the World (London: Paradigm Publishers, 2012).

[30] David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London: Verso, 2012), pp. 155-164.

[31] Graeme Wearden, ‘Europe’s day of anti-austerity strikes and protests turn violent—as it happened’, The Guardian, November 14, 2012; ‘Anti-austerity protests sweep Europe’, Fin24, May 01, 2013.

[32] ‘Outraged’, The Daily Star (Dhaka), 6th February, 2013; ‘Outrage Explodes Over Verdict’, The Daily Star (Dhaka), 7th February, 2013; Mashiur Rahman, ‘Analysis: Calls grow for banning Jamaat-e-Islami in BD’, The Daily Star (Dhaka), 28th February, 2013.

[33] Karl Marx, The Paris Commune 1871, ed. and introduced by Christopher Hitchens (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1971); Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, History of the Commune of 1871, trans. Eleanor Marx with a new foreword by Eric Hazan (London: Verso, 2012).

[34] James Green, Death in the Haymarket (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006).

[35] John Gretton, Students and Workers: An Analytical Account of Dissent in France, May—June 1968 (London: Macdonald, 1969); Angelo Quattrocchi and Tom Nairn, The Beginning of the End: France, May 1968 (London: Panther Books, 1968); Henri Lefebvre, The Explosion: Marxism and the French Upheaval, trans. Alfred Ehrenfeld (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969).

[36] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds.), In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), p. 308.

[37] Here, the point is that whether the voice of the subaltern gets heard, registered or taken into account has been decisively settled or not. In this regard, the importance of an audience is crucial as who is listening or not listening to the subaltern becomes significant. As long as the power bloc gives space to the subaltern, the subaltern speaks. If we take symbolically the subaltern space as a ‘blank’ within a particular given discourse, then that ‘blank’ also connotes some meaning, it also partly speaks. That is to say, silence may have its own voice and say

[38] Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘Preface’, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness with an introduction by Bertrand Russell, 1922 (London: Routledge, 1974), p. 3.


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