Silence and symbolism: the constructive and destructive uses of silence in peace-building and the case of mass trauma.

By Maria Menezes de Oliveira

“The silent side of history is seen a little in the silent suffering of men and nations. But more suffering is lived through than is seen from the outside. It seems that mankind prefers to suffer in silence, prefers to live in the world of silence, even if it be by suffering, than to take its suffering into the loud places of history” Picard, (1948)

Silence is an essential component of communication and proves to be malleable and multi-dimensional. In the words of Wittgenstein, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Wittgenstein’s proclamation articulates why one may be reduced to silence in the context of conflict and trauma. Some things are just too painful and complex to express, so we say nothing at all. However, there is a flaw in Wittgenstein’s theory. In its original meaning, Wittgenstein suggests that that which cannot be said cannot be known; language limits thought because that which cannot be conceived through language must be inconceivable, as language is the mechanism through which we share knowledge. In philosophical parlance, this is linguistic determinism. However, in placing language as a way of knowing in and of itself, what can be communicated through silence is overlooked. Perhaps silence is also a mechanism of communication. The idea of silence as a form of communication may more easily entice the Sapir-Whorfs [1] of this world. The silence that I am most concerned with and referring to is the silent side of history that Picard is referring to, the silent side of history in which mass trauma is silenced, stifled or written out of history.

Silence has been present among post-conflict and post-traumatic dialogues amongst one or more actors. Silence is perpetuated from the institutional level to society and often permeates the interpersonal level. In the context of mass trauma, silence is both a symptom of trauma and can be a political tool to incite fear and suppress state accountability. In the case of Brazil, the idea that Brazil functions under a “racial democracy” works to suppress any open discussion of and recognition of racism in Brazil. Whilst 77% of victims of police brutality in Brazil are black, Brazil is allegedly free from the ills of racism, and thus, for many, “the discussion never arose at home”. Therefore, state-induced silence can function through a top-down approach in which silence permeates the public and private spheres.

Silence speaks volumes and is littered with meaning, which begs the question; what does the lack of communication communicate? Moreover, what can be said in the unsaid? 
The current debate that pervades the academic sphere is whether silence is constructive or destructive to public discourse and communication. The spine of the literature on the uses of silence asserts two fundamentals: the absence of verbal communication is not synonymous with the absence of communication, and silence is cultural and context-specific. The former harmonises with Madonik, who observed that “silence contains meaning”, the latter reinforces that the context in which silence is experienced will influence communication. Hence, the duality of silence as a constructive or destructive tool in post-conflict contexts.

Academic jargon aside, what messages does silence perpetuate?
The use of silence proves problematic in the context of state-sanctioned genocides. Silence in the context of state-sanctioned genocides exhibit abuses of power and polarising power dynamics that pervade traumatic and post-traumatic contexts, conflict and post-conflict dynamics. What makes this silence problematic and thus destructive is the characteristic that it is imposed upon society. This destructive use of silence denotes a top-down approach to communication in which a domineering actor purposefully limits communication. It appears as though post-conflict contexts experience a socially shared contractual silence, which is both a consequence and an index of a power imbalance. Such communal forms of silence that shape the social and political landscape have implied a “cultural censorship”.
In Canada, we can observe the use of destructive silence and communication. The state used silence to deny the experience of aboriginal children of sexual and physical abuse in residential schools. For an estimated 100 year-long period (from 1863-1998), Canada sent around 150,000 indigenous children to government-funded boarding schools to separate them from their family and culture. An estimated 3,000-30,000 children died in this school system, with families often not alerted of their children’s deaths. Canada has henceforth implicated itself in cultural genocide.

The use of silence, albeit constructive in achieving the state’s aim to escape culpability, proves destructive for the indigenous peoples of Canada. The use of silence prevents the retelling of traumatic experiences and prevents the fostering of positive relationships between Canada and its indigenous peoples. Thus, silence is destructive in the easing of mass trauma. Silence prevents the easing of mass trauma through the lack of state recognition of its crimes and thereafter lack of state apology. The lack of dialogue coupled with a lack of state accountability and apology makes those affected by state crimes feel unheard and insignificant in their society. In Germany, on the other hand, we can observe the use of state apology by granting German citizenship to descendants of Nazi victims. In denying a faction of society a space to communicate its trauma, the state communicates that this group of people does not hold the authority to participate wholly in society. Further, it communicates they are not endowed with the same rights to reap the benefits of being a part of that society, as their efforts to communicate their political frustrations are ignored. Silencing, coupled with the lack of state culpability, communicates, “We do not regret what we have done” and “You are not valued in the same way as others are valued”. It is no wonder then that indigenous communities continue to face social exclusion. They are simply met with silence.

The constructive use of silence in the context of mass trauma and post-conflict dynamics lies in the destructive use of silence. Awareness of the destructive use of silence in such contexts exposes power dynamics and signals the need to unpack mass trauma. Destructive silence must be broken to understand post-conflict social dynamics and foster better relations between the implicated groups. Through public panel discussions, awareness campaigns and research, we can better understand mass trauma and post-conflict dynamics and thus, break the silence.

For much too long, silence, being characterised by the absence of verbal communication, has been conflated with the absence of communication. Silence is both characteristic of and a tool to communicate messages. It is time to unpack silence where it is constructive and critique silence where it is destructive.

[1] Relating to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, in which a weaker version of linguistic determinism is preferred (linguistic relativism).


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