The power of silence

The commemorative silence typically observed after horrific tragedies may usefully be viewed as an example of joint speech, in which the verbal content has been reduced to a minimum, while the participatory enactment of a common center is greatly amplified. I describe the experience of playing recordings of such events to French audiences in 2016 in Chapter 7 of The Ground From Which We Speak.

A remarkable example was on display at this weekend’s March For Our Lives. Emma Gonzales provided a gut-wrenching performance in which she induced a very large crowd to keep the collective silence for 6 minutes and 20 seconds (The period includes her preliminary speech). I have never seen anything comparable.

Those familiar with meditation may have recognised something. When you sit alone and try to still the mind, you inevitably find intrusive voices arising, that can be distracting. Techniques such as transcendental meditation teach one to observe, but not engage with, such voices. Here, we see a collective analogue. During the silence, a chant arises, spontaneously. It is allowed to float above the joint silence, and it dies down again. This is, in many respects, a collective meditation, and the chant is, of course, the collective voice.

I defy the reader to watch the whole thing. I was in tears.