The importance of hearing the sounds of silence

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, April 24th 2019

Art Garfunkel performed in Glasgow on Easter Sunday; in an age filled with what seems to be incessant noise, it has never been more critical than to listen to seek out, and listen to, the sounds of silence. Despite everything, they can be found.

Years ago when I was thinking about public debate I read A.L. Kennedy’s first book ‘Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains’ – which has in it a passage which is an evocative hymn to the power and prevalence of silence. Kennedy wrote that in even the most noise-filled space there were gaps and silences, and these were as important as the noises. It changed how I thought of debate from then on.

Recently I came across Paul Goodman’s ‘Speaking and Language’ and in exploring silence he writes: ‘Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world and there are kinds and grades of each’. He then goes on to identify nine different types of silence, which is revealing, but not exhaustive. He does not discuss for example whether silence is consenting or non-consenting, something freely entered into, or imposed by others.

Goodman does not acknowledge individual, group and community silence. Beyond this there is spiritual silence, and the importance of silence in music, which was understood by masters such as Sinatra and Miles Davis. Mark Hollis, who died two months ago, understood the power of silence in his later Talk Talk albums, and then, when he withdrew from public life twenty years ago, only ever gave one interview. Silence can say something really deep.

Power frequently uses silence, avoiding uncomfortable questions about motivation and accountability. An acquaintance of mine last week recalled how a very adept chair of an important committee used strategic silence to deal with thorny questions, often just letting it hang in the air to disarm others and encourage them to find solutions. The evasions of power is a variant of consenting silence, at least from the parties in question, but what is different is forced silence, which I am going to concentrate on.

Last week I was speakimg about different manifestations of silence with academics Orla Meadhbh Murray and Sarah Parry at Edinburgh University. Orla talked about silences in academia of which, like any institution, there are many; while Sarah examined the environmental movement. Despite our different areas and starting points we found much in common.

I talked about two areas of my research into public life – both of which contain aspects of silence. The first was my study of the commentariat in Scotland (those that communicate and commentate via various forms of media) that involved fifty in-depth interviews. It would not be surprising to learn that the group were very unrepresentative on gender, generation, geography, class and ethnicity, to name the obvious.

The group, many of whom I knew, had a particular view of Scotland, of the 1980s as a framing decade and 1979 as a sort of Year Zero. They were ferociously anti-Tory, on the centre-left, pro-devolution, and believed in Scotland as a place of social justice, without looking too closely at facts or asking uncomfortable questions of power. There were, of course, one or two honourable exceptions to this.

Each interviewee was asked to define their national identity – it was a tick box exercise, but two-thirds of my sample got into elaborate explanations for why they were middle class, making comments like ‘I am not a sell out’ and ‘I can’t stand Tories’ and ‘I still feel working class in my values’ and many more such comments, protesting their uncomfortableness with being middle class.

William Mackenzie, a Glasgow academic in the 1970s, would have called this group part of ‘the community of communicators’. He would have pointed out that as important as who is in, is who isn’t – namely the missing voices and gaps in public life. Scotland used to be a place where discussing religion or politics was best avoided in certain circles but while old walls have crumbled, new ones have arisen.

We aren’t for some really meant to delve too deeply into the social justice rhetoric of contemporary Scotland and find how short we come up: on the big economic and social indicators, on income and wealth inequality, and on how our public services work – which is generally for the middle classes. Above all we aren’t in so many places – official and unofficial – meant to question too closely how progressive Scotland is, whether we are heading in the right direction, or the sum total of all the efforts surrounding the Scottish Parliament these last two decades. To be fair, today’s evasions are softer and more pliable than the rigid demarcation lines which used to police the no go areas of the past.

The second area I talked about was ‘the missing Scotland’ and the ‘missing million’ voters, meaning the voters who hadn’t voted for a generation but would turn out in the indyref. I conceived these terms, identified the exact number (989,540 voters out of the 2014 electorate), ran focus groups to explore why so many people felt silenced and why the independence debate had given them voice, and these concepts were adopted as key terms for both Yes and No camps.

But here is the thing. For both Yes and No, the ‘missing Scotland’ was sorted by the action of such people turning up to vote once in 2014. As we know, for all the noise Scotland has subsequently returned to business as usual with not very high turnouts for the Scottish Parliament and nearly half of the country – disproportionately poorer and younger – continually excluded and forgotten about.

The ‘missing Scotland’ is not addressed by the act of voting once. That really is the politics of complacency. Instead, democracy is about everyday action, constantly changing and neverending. And until we do something fundamental with our democracy (or what passes for it) and society, ‘the missing Scotland’ will always be with us – marginalised, forgotten and their silences (and lack of engagement and representation) ignored.

All across Scotland, in the midst of noise, claims and counter-claims, we have deep and powerful silences which reveal much about who we are as a culture, people and society. There are too many silences which are in effect evasions from difficult debate, or ones aided by political orthodoxies, and which keep honest discussions closed because their deliberations might stray off the line of the official view that everything is rosy in today’s Scotland.

How do we break down the silences which characterise too much of our public life? The first act, borrowing from A.L. Kennedy quoted at the outset, would be to notice the silences in the midst of the noise. That would be a start.

The second act would be that whenever conversations are taking place in real life or on social media, to notice who is involved and taking part – and who isn’t and is thus missing. Hence, this should mean, to take one obvious example, that the ubiquity of various ‘manels’ (male only panels) in public life is reduced and, when they take place, are challenged by participants.

A third act would be to consider what makes the ingredients of a proper, two-way conversation, listening, reflecting and hearing each other. One quality in this has to be space and another, a respect for alternative viewpoints to your own.

These are all basic steps. Something more fundamental is also needed. The partisan political followers who make most public noise don’t speak for Scotland. They don’t speak for independence, for the union, for the Scottish (or British) nationalist cause, the left or the right, but they do dominate and distort debate. We do have to do something about the ‘wee hard men’ who have down the years harmed too much of Scotland – both literally and metaphorically – and who still shout down, bully and harass those who dare speak up against them.

We have to work out how to have discussions, which aren’t just based on faith and assertion but on facts and knowledge, and to do that we probably need to encourage places and spaces that nurture such qualities. I don’t have all the answers in one article, but I know that silences matter, and that we can do so much better than we are currently doing. I would welcome any suggestions about how we could take small steps that could be utilised to do something bigger and more profound. Any thoughts, readers?