Is Silence Complicity?

“Action without a name, a who attached to it, is meaningless.” — Hannah Arendt

In a world heavy with noise, silence finds itself once again in the place of the accused. 

Silence, some suggest, is complicity. This sentiment is spreading all over the internet, in reference, of course, to horrors we are witnessing in the Middle East. But are we being asked to take sides, or are we being asked to just make noise?

If we look at the origins of the word ‘silence’, it refers to the wind dying down, to stopping,  stepping back from the hustle of everyday life, a place to think, to reflect, something increasingly seen as a cop out in our hurried lives. But could the lack of silence explain why critical thinking and nuance are often absent in our societies?

Noise is certainly important in some circumstances. Marches and protests are one way to bring voices together for a specific goal, at a point in time, usually aimed at politicians or decision-makers. It is also a way to show solidarity.

There is no doubt that many voices ringing in unison is more powerful than a lone one. But is noise always better than silence?

In ‘Silence is not Enough,’ author and Philosopher Julian Baggini suggests there is a distinction to be made between being silent on a situation happening under our noses, where our silence may not only be complicity but may even bolster the wrongdoing, and an injustice happening far away. “There are innumerable injustices around the world. Save for a handful of full-time activists and professionals … the finite supply of time ensures that most of us are silent about the vast majority of them,” he says.

There is no question that when free speech is being quashed, when governments use populist tropes to scare us into silence, when people lose jobs for speaking out, when writers are denied prizes because of who they are, we must speak up. 

But does speaking up necessarily lead to positive action or results? And, is only the visible, the performative kind of action, acceptable?

While there are documented examples of how social media platforms help groups organise, the for-profit nature of the platforms means we are organised into groups, and mostly  speaking to those who already agree with us; it’s performative. And if everyone is shouting at everyone but at no one specifically, it’s just shouting into the void. 

The sense of urgency that demands immediate action, makes it seem that a statement or a post will literally prevent the further loss of life. But the idea that a population lives or dies based on how many tweets there are in their favour is rather dystopian. 

Furthermore, speaking out has become a metaphorical minefield. For those who do choose to speak, it is not without rules and impositions: Who should be condemned first? Whose suffering is more acceptable? Even stating obvious historical facts can get someone cancelled, harassed, or cost them their jobs. This is a new form of McCarthyism* in which we are all participating. 

And it brings us to the question: Does silence equal inaction?

There is the need for both loud and visible work and quiet and invisible. The work of resistance movements throughout history, for example, has almost always been done secretly, for obvious strategic reasons. The work of peace negotiations, too, usually remains hidden until an outcome can be publicly celebrated. And educating ourselves about history is also quiet and crucial work.

Writer Bernadine Evaristo said that not posting about one’s feelings about what is happening does not mean we do not care or are not involved in other ways. “As creatives,” she wrote, “we might find ways to tackle the big themes that require deep thinking. How can we build a better world for this and successive generations? How do we counteract division and build bridges? How do we stop murder on a mass scale - the history of humanity drenched in human blood?”

Perhaps part of the problem may be that we have lost our ability to listen, and that is related to the limitation of influence. Where many are speaking out: civil society groups, United Nations institutions, historians, philosophers and religious leaders, those that actually have power are not swayed by those speaking out.

What we need are new strategies, new alliances, new narratives. We need to retrain ourselves in the real work of persuasion, of conversation, of dialogue. This is quiet work.

Words, Veronica Yates
Illustration, Miriam Sugranyes

*The American Heritage Dictionary gives the definition of McCarthyism as: 1. The political practice of publicizing accusations of disloyalty or subversion with insufficient regard to evidence; and 2. The use of methods of investigation and accusation regarded as unfair, in order to suppress opposition.


‘The Origin and Cultural Evolution of Silence,’ Maria Popova, The Marginalian, read online.

‘When silence is not enough,’ Julian Baggini, Index on Censorship.

‘Activists in the dark: Social media algorithms and collective action in two social movement organizations,’ Michael Etter and Oana Brindusa Albu, 20 September 2020, Volume 28, issue 1. Read online.

‘How to Break Out of Your Social Media Echo Chamber,’ Christopher Seneca, Wired, 17 September 2020. Read here.

'Black Lives Matter, but to whom? Why we need a politics of exile in a time of troubling stuckness', Bayo Akomolafe, Read here

Further Resources

‘The transformation of silence into action,’ Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt.

What Lies Beneath: Silence, A CRIN/Rights Studio Magazine. Download the pdf here

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