Bogus silences in public discourse

Historically, as we are informed e.g. by proverbs, silence was regarded more positively as it has been in recent decades. Information was more like a valuable property that needed to be watched over and given away with great care and control. Over time, the view has gained ground that sharing and circulating information might be more beneficial to individuals (and to collectives in some respects, too) than retaining it – communication can help us to overcome divisions and trauma.

Black (1988) associates the preference for retention of information with conservatism/the political right and the preference for sharing and circulating information with left-liberal political views. Looking back at the generational revolt and leftist political movement of 1968 (e.g. in Germany), it seems as though it was a high point in preference of discussion (Verheyen 2010) and it also seems as though it enabled more, more open, and more public discussion around formerly tabooed aspects of e.g. sexuality, power, and the Holocaust. ‘Breaking taboos’ in this climate could become a heroic venture, something to be applauded for.

This must have been to the dislike of the political right, but since the early nineties this very development has been turned against the political left in what we know as the debate surrounding political correctness. This move, claiming that voicing opinions in public and free democratic deliberation has become impossible because the political left (formerly seen to break taboos and free up topics for public debate) set up taboos and policed language, has been very successful. It has been so successful that it has become difficult to appreciate political correctness for its initial aims to avoid sexist and racist discourse (and in Germany, add revisionist discourse about the Nazi past).

I did a bit of teaching on the pc discourse, and year on year, students agree with the aims of pc and with the premise that we should avoid offense of minorities or of people in difficulties in referring to them or talking about them. Everyone agrees that offense should be avoided and goes so far as to concede that when you try to avoid offense, you automatically become a bit more watchful regarding the language that you use. However, at the same time everyone agrees that pc is ridiculous, pointless and exaggerated.

I would even maintain that the claim of being silenced by a leftist rule over opinions by means of policing public discourse has become the main rhetorical tool of a conservative backlash. I call the silences – which the political right claim have been introduced by leftist discourse hegemony – bogus silences because sexist and racist premises still underpin a good proportion of public discourse. It is difficult to appreciate why anyone feels silenced who thinks that women have already achieved everything they could ask for and more; disadvantaging men in turn. It is also difficult to appreciate why anyone feels politically marginalised who thinks that the native population has to have privileged access to ‘their’ society’s resources and who fear that immigrants will loot ‘their’ health and social security system.

It also to me is rather apparent where the real discourse hegemony lies when people shun pc even though they actually agree with its premises and when young women shun feminism even though they may at the same time be quite aware of continuing inequalities and sexual harassment. Speaking out, open discussion, democratic deliberation, confession and breaking taboos has attained such a currency in public discourse that accusing people of silence, closing down topics for debate and setting up taboos has become an effective rhetorical weapon. Ironically, it is used most fiercely against those who can be associated with a preference for sharing information and for communicating in order to solve problems and to overcome trauma.

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About meeelani

I am a linguist and discourse analyst, specializing in political discourse, discourse key words and public discourse about language as well as silence. I have been intrigued by silence, by its communicative salience and by the question of how to get hold of it by way of linguistic analysis for some time. After having looked into silence, concealment and expectations of speech in political discourse over the last few years, I now become particularly interested in the way that the development of discourses generates absences (and in the methodological issue of how to capture these in the process!) and in silence’s peculiar relations to power and submission, hegemony and subversion. I lecture in German Studies at the University of Reading, but I use this blog in a personal capacity. View all posts by meeelani

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