Silence can be violent. I’m not sure what that means for those who are fond of meditating or those who preach of silence being golden, or even if it means anything at all. The silence I refer to here is that which takes place after a fight, or instead of an argument – the stuff that occurs on an interpersonal level.
Anyone can find themselves in the position of being convinced there’s just no point in talking to a significant other. Maybe you’ve said what needed to be said two or three times already and nothing changes, so you stop communicating anything of importance. If you’ve tried everything from dropping subtle hints to having a full-blown screaming fit and got nowhere, you might give them the silent treatment instead. To deny communication would be an effective way to send a message to the other person’s psyche that says you are nothing to me. If we’ve tried to express something we consider important to us because we need something to change and our observations are met with dismissal or hostility we’re likely to take the other person’s reaction personally. We hear you’re not important enough for me to change this situation even though I have the power to do so. When this happens we have two immediate choices; we can put up and shut up, or we can leave. Ironically, shutting up is one sure way of ensuring the demise of the relationship. Does this not spell the beginning of the end of the intimacy? Or do we commit psychic suicide and allow a part of us to die off inside instead?
I’m wondering if these ideas about the violence in silence could be related to the theory that we’re all in dire need of validation from ‘another’ to feel like we’re worthy of existence. If this theory is true, it could mean one of the reasons for reacting or responding with silence is linked to the protection of our sense of self-worth. However, silence can also be seen as a way of exercising the ‘will’ without showing any muscle, especially when it’s connected to petty instances because it always comes down to ‘who breaks first’.
If someone is important to us, we won’t want to leave the relationship, so in effect, we’re left with no choice but to go quiet. And this would be fine if we didn’t have defence mechanisms. But choosing (either consciously or unconsciously) to go silent will still result in a separation. If something has bothered you deeply it will not go away just because you or the other person wants it to, it gets stored as unresolved. If it happens often and you’re still in the same situation, then it’s normal enough to shut down emotionally altogether because the attitude of – What’s the point of me saying anything because it doesn’t do any good takes over. And rightfully so, why waste your breath, right? Silence is a secret weapon but it creates emotional distance, and when that distance becomes great enough the incentive to stay around decreases. Either way, you get away from the source of the discomfort which is what you wanted in the beginning.
It is never a question of how important the person is to us; it’s always the issue itself which dictates the level of importance. Having a strong bond with someone will increase the chances of us at least trying to fight back, to correct whatever imbalance or injustice we have perceived. Silence may buy us time; in giving a situation some time we at least offer a chance for change to occur. Sometimes, we can use silence to call the person’s bluff; if they fear separation (as we all do), they may back down if the issue isn’t all that important to them. If the issue is important to them too and the connection we have is real there will be an effect, and their own level of personal development will dictate how they react or respond. But if we receive no response at all, well, that isn’t a good sign. It may be important to note that someone who has a healthy amount of emotional maturity would not fight back with more silence; they would at least acknowledge what was going on, even if they had no solution to offer.
Halfway through writing this, I remembered I read something about non-activity being an aggressive act. Towards the end of his book, Violence, Žižek says that;
“The threat today is not passivity, but pseudo-activity, the urge to ‘be active’, ‘to participate’, to mask the nothingness of what goes on. People intervene all the time, ‘do something’; academics participate in meaningless debates, and so on. The truly difficult thing is to step back, to withdraw. Those in power often prefer a ‘critical’ participation, a dialogue, to silence – just to engage us in ‘dialogue’, to make sure our ominous passivity is broken.”
This passage is still relevant when used in a personal context. When we are placed in a position of apparent powerlessness within a close relationship, we are more likely to resort to extreme measures. Politicians are still human and they’re at the mercy of the same human tendencies as the rest of us. Often the political is just the personal playing out in a publicly acceptable way and it’s only the unspoken demand of society to deny the self which likes us to pretend otherwise. More often than not when dealing with people, any power is only ever perceived, and by that I mean the power they have over us is not real. It’s symbolic. But, it can still be experienced as though it was real. On a personal level, a sense of powerlessness may originate from an implied threat of actual verbal aggression or possible separation if honest words are spoken. We could fear the loss of a particular person, and yet still say nothing despite the potential that the very silence we fight back with could result in the death of a part of our character or the death of the relationship itself.
Passivity, or lack of action, is akin to throwing in the towel where relationships are concerned because if we’re not communicating then we have no chance of being intimate. If we have no intimacy within a personal relationship, we can’t consider it to be healthy. That being said, there is no right or wrong here. We can only deal with ‘what is’, and if we find ourselves in a situation where we feel silence is our only option – we have our reasons. And unless action is taken to confront those reasons, there may be no hope of salvaging whatever is left. Much will depend on the situation that has provoked the response; if the situation was a one-off event it’ll be easier to sort out, but if we’re dealing with a persistent issue it may be time to admit defeat and walk away rather than commit psychic suicide or waste valuable time on feeding a relationship which is doomed to failure in the long run.
It may or may not be possible to alter our external behaviour with an increased understanding of our self-destructive tendencies. I just don’t know. I think no one else knows for sure either. A problem which comes to mind is the human tendency to assume we know just because we think. What I mean is, when we read or hear something which relates to a positive behavioural action we can be quick to assume that we are already doing whatever is being suggested. I’m fairly sure this is connected to the fact we learn through relating and also by ‘identifying with’. Just because you know an action has a particular consequence, it doesn’t grant immunity from committing to the wrong action. Neither does it mean you are capable of expressing the positive – but most especially when it concerns hard-wired defence mechanisms. Even love has its work cut out overcoming those. So the next time you keep your mouth shut to keep the peace, think about what’s going on underneath the surface. There’s every chance that what you’re doing is waging an invisible war. Silence is the soul’s secret call for change. And one way or another, it’ll get it.
Revised and updated. Original post 30/10/2015