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The Tyranny of Silence

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One of the lessons from the successful (so far) revolution in Egypt is the importance of voice in creating and keeping a democracy.   I say that with some obvious bias, of course, as I am a communication scholar.   But you don't need a Ph.D. in my field to recognize that one reason Mubarak remained in power so long was because he cultivated a tyranny of silence that controlled the speech of citizens and suppressed the media. It is that same kind of fear that has characterized America since 9/11.  

I don't think it is possible to overstate my case.   From my first blog back in October I have explored this fear of speaking out against tyranny, whether the tyrant was a blowhard right-winger parroting Rush Limbaugh in a parking lot or a politician on television calling for second amendment solutions or a former president reconstructing a past through fabrications and fantasies that go largely unchallenged, we have been numbed into silence by the rich and the dumb.   And, as brutal prison guards and Rupert Murdoch know so well, a people quieted by fear for so long lose the will and the ability to speak.  

Our fear is not of the unknown alone, although not knowing what might happen if you risk challenging the assumed authority of political privilege or anger always comes fully equipped with an imagined price that made well be repaid real in pain, either to the body or to the psyche, or worse:   the loss of a job, or of making members of your own family vulnerable to retaliation.   Ask any Egyptian.   They lived with that fear for a long time.   Or ask any American worker cowed by a boss who listens to Michael Savage, or who openly supports Michele Bachmann.   Or who believes Glenn Beck's conspiracy maps.

There are differences of course, between we the sheeple and those brave Egyptians.   We still have a long way to fall in our fear before we hit the level of despair that motivated them into the streets.   As Simon Schama, an expert on revolutions who teaches at Columbia University has written, it takes two things to make a successful revolution: symbols and strategies.   In Egypt the triggering symbol was the murder of a young man for no reason at all and the recent success of the Tunisians.   The strategies used by the citizens were to mobilize action via social media and then, when that was shut down, by word of mouth and by just showing up in Tahrir square.   What we have yet to see are the strategies for crafting a democracy, or holding free and open elections, or for ensuring that the military eventually relinquishes control.

The left has no contemporary symbols capable of inspiring a revolution.   Perhaps our 24/7 news cycle and a widespread attention deficit disorder accounts for it, or perhaps we are just too easily entertained or too self-absorbed to care, but whatever the reason we have a hard time remembering the pain of others long enough to organize change around it.   As I wrote back in December, we like to watch.   That's what fearful people like to do.   They watch.   They wait.   They hope the grim reaper of the economy or circumstance doesn't darken their own closed and dead-bolted door.

The right, by contrast, offer an object lesson on symbols and protest.   Consider the Tea Party.   Briefly.   Just briefly.   By dressing up in revolutionary costumes complete with hats and by hijacking the founders in ways that even usually reticent historians felt compelled to challenge, they nevertheless managed to bring a nutty influence to the midterm elections and change the composition of Congress.   Imagine that.

The problem with their protest is that it, too, was created by fear.   Rightly or wrongly, and I think mostly wrongly, Tea Partiers fueled by fear, anger, a little racism and a lot of right wing media, organized under the symbolic cry of "take our country back" and managed to give voice to a segment of the American population that felt, rightly or wrongly, mostly the same way.   If the Egyptians showed us how to translate legitimate fear into revolutionary change, the Tea Party showed us how to translate wingnut propaganda into mediated rage, which is to say that they gave us a spectacle.   That it was a spectacle bought and paid for for the Koch Brothers and others of their ilk is not the point.   It showed what a little organization and costuming can do to remake America's "origins" story and turn it into reality TV.

And what did we offer?   I love Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and the brainy if occasionally offensive Bill Maher, but if they are the best we can offer to counter the propaganda from the right, then we are in big trouble.   They are comedians .   They use the tools of humor--ridicule, word play, and satire--to drop an exploding clown face into a serious bar brawl.   Gotta love them and hey, let's share them on Facebook, but their antics are not enough.   Ditto for Rachel Maddow, who is every smart person's idea of how to be a pundit.   But again, not enough.  

What worries me is not the fear of the present, but the quiet trajectory of this acceptance of fear in the social construction of our collective tyranny of silence.   The conflicts that defined and drove us here can really only be resolved in one of two ways.   Either we continue to pretend that our country is all right, that our elections are still free and open, and because we have a voice at the ballot box we can still determine our future.   The world at the end of that rainbow is fine if you happen to be wealthy or at least your livelihood depends on a fat defense contract.   For everyone else, it's a Wal-Mart of a future:   Jobs at low pay without health benefits or pensions, unable to afford a home, condemned by a global economy to compete with those who are already surpassing us in education, technology, innovation, and infrastructure.   And, oh yeah, cheap crap we don't need and a demand that we buy it anyway.  

The other possibility is that we find ourselves one day unable to stand it any longer.   If things continue to deteriorate it will still take awhile before that happens, so no worries now, right?   But I ask you, what will it take for you to not be able to stand it any longer?   What will it take to motivate you off the couch and peacefully into the streets?   Would "peaceful" even work?  

Ah, there it is.   One major difference between the Egyptian people and us is guns.   The irony is that even though we have that precious second amendment, it hasn't prevented Wall Street and the banks, the large corporations and defense contractors, and two political parties that are not much different from taking over what used to be our democracy and replacing it with a land no longer "of the people, by the people, and for the people," but instead a land of the lobbyists, by the wingnut media, and for the ultra rich.   The idea that owning guns would protect us from the government is just a bad joke and yet--and yet--it still serves as a rallying cry for people who have already traded real freedom for a tyranny of silence.

It is the tyranny of silence that prevents so many of us today from rising up to protest the "forever wars" of revenge and oil we cannot hope to win and can no longer afford.

It is the same tyranny of silence that prevents us from rising up to protest the government takeover--not by socialists--but by extremists on the right who readily give tax breaks to the ultra rich at the expense of everyone else, and who have also been successful in more or less co-opting an otherwise capable president into believing that cutting spending on everything except war is the only way to solve our debt crisis.  

And it is the tyranny of silence that characterizes the inaction of those of us who have suffered foreclosures of their homes, and those of us who find ourselves without jobs, and those of us who "played by the rules and worked hard" to get through school only to graduate into an America of diminished expectations and heavy debt, as well as all of the rest of us who have seen our salaries cut, our benefits cut, our pensions cut, and who now say to ourselves, "It's okay I guess because at least I still have a job"--yes, it is all of us, including me and you, who see the protests in Egypt and cheer for democracy but are too afraid to maintain the democracy we have at home.  

We all have been made afraid.   We live in a tyranny of silence.  And, as Thomas Jefferson so profoundly expressed it: "All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent."

 

H. L. (Bud) Goodall, Jr. lives in Arizona where he is a college professor and writer. He has published 20 books and many articles and chapters on a variety of communication issues. His most recent books include Counter-Narrative: How Progressive (more...)
 
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I call this piece "The Tyranny of Silence" but my ... by Bud Goodall on Sunday, Feb 13, 2011 at 9:17:55 AM
I find this article to be so truthful, well-said, ... by C-Mac on Friday, Feb 25, 2011 at 9:44:59 PM
Thanks for your kind words! I really appreciate i... by Bud Goodall on Saturday, Feb 26, 2011 at 7:35:40 AM