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Silence as a Luxury Accessory

Monday, 1 June 2015  | Matthew Tan


In 2013, a 30-year-old senior communications executive named Justine Sacco made a series of barbed tweets about her trip from New York to Cape Town. One of these tweets was issued just before the final leg of her journey, and it read

“Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!”

After sending the tweet, Sacco boarded her flight, unaware of the immensity of the response her tweet would generate. In the 11 hours of her final flight, Sacco's tweet had generated tens of thousands of angry responses, including one from her company. It generated a widely circulated hashtag, accusing Sacco of racism and demanding her immediate sacking. The tweet cost Sacco her job.

If there is one thing that can be gleaned from this episode, it is that there is a marked erosion of the clear border between the private and public spheres in the age of social media. This blurring was put most succinctly by the media theorist Clay Shirky, who said that the internet was “not a public sphere” but a “private sphere that tolerates public speech”. Though Shirky still presumed a distinction between the private and public, just where the border lay between those remain undefined.

This increasing porosity between the public and the private spheres has very often led to an invasion of the latter by the former. London, the seat of liberalism in the Anglosphere, is now the city that is most subject to the technologies of surveillance. Governments have now passed laws mandating the retention of metadata by internet users as a means to combat terrorism. The list goes on.

What is important to note is that this was something that was taking place long before the arrival of social media. In the 1940s, George Orwell had depicted a world in his 1984, in which every nook and cranny of private space was subject to the scrutiny of public authorities, and sex between couples had become a matter of public security. In Orwell's world, the invasion of the private by the public was one in which state bureaucracies had made their way into our workplaces and bedrooms.

That we now live in an age of receding state power directly has not alleviated this concern of the invasion of private activity. In the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the German idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, the Scottish economist Adam Smith and the German political theorist Karl Marx respectively, all forecasted a future scenario in which public cohesion was generated by the ascendency of commercial activity. For these thinkers, and better or worse, the market had become the substitute for the order normally brought about by bureaucratic governance. Through deregulation of industry and the hypermobility of finance beyond the control of any territorial government, government itself has become more subservient to the interests of commerce as the twentieth century rolled into the twenty-first. Going further, government has actually become the enabler of the growing political clout of commercial interests. With decreasing rates of subtlety, from eBay's “drone a friend” campaign (which uses the same drone technologies used by the United States in battle zones in South Asia), corporate sponsorship of political parties, the rise of private security forces outgrowing the police forces, to the placing of advertisements on police vehicles, we are seeing the rise of corporate stand-ins for government.

With this growth of corporate power over the public sphere, we are seeing in our times a mutation of the invasion of privacy by the public. Writing in The New York Times, Matthew Crawford wrote an article entitled “The Cost of Paying Attention”. In that article, Crawford wrote about a trend whereby attention and quiet have increasingly become commodified spaces that commercial interests have filled with the din of advertising. Every interval, break and transition in both public and private intercourse is being turned into an opportunity to push a product. To wit, think of the number of times advertising was pushed into our faces as we took a train, checked up on what our friends have been up to on Facebook or even relieved ourselves in bathrooms outside our homes. The commodification of every imaginable space and its subsequent transformation into an opportunity for product promotion in the loudest possible terms has now made it almost become impossible for people to have a moment of quietude. However, Crawford made in his article another highly pertinent and very concerning observation. The inverse of the growing commercialisation of private spaces via the noise of advertising is that privacy its corollary, quiet, has now become a privilege that only a monied few can enjoy—Crawford cites the example of luxury airline lounges, which stand as the sole bastion of silence amidst the din of advertising in airports.

Why this co-opting of silence by commerce should be of concern can be gleaned from a message by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on the 2012 World Communication Day (24 January). In this message, Benedict spoke of the importance of grounding meaningful and even creative communication on a bedrock of silence. “Silence,” Benedict argued,

is an integral element in communication. In its absence, words rich in meaning cannot exist...When messages and information become plentiful, silence becomes essential if we are to distinguish what is important from what is insignificant or secondary.

If Benedict is correct, then the commodification of quietude should be of concern at two levels.

In the first instance, it is a concern because the ability to quarantine silence from noise presumes the lack of a mutually reinforcing relationship. In this quarantining of silence from noise, all communications breaks down as creativity, depth and meaning is substituted for the relaying of data or a crude manipulation of feeling under an avalanche of text and images.

In the second instance, the availing of silence as a commodity available to a monied few is one of many growing signs of Capitalism generating a new feudal order whereby even quiet has become a luxury item. Thus the wealthy can enjoy the privacy and quiet of a lounge or a business class flight, whilst the rest are left exposed to either the noise of advertising or mass entertainment. Chances are, such noise generating outlets are being manipulated by those same individuals that command the economy from the silence of their executive lounges.

There exists, however, a living counterpoint, living by a logic that is a complete contrast to that of the commodification and quarantining of silence. This is the Benedictine monastic tradition. In general, the tradition is one where life is lived against a backdrop of silence, in their prayer, work and even mealtimes. However, conversation and spoken words are utilised throughout the day, but they are woven into a fabric of silence. In the Carthusian variety of the Benedictine life, the monks go as far as to take a vow of silence, speaking only at set times during the week. The silence of a Benedictine monastery is a privileged zone of quietude, generated by a privileged community. But this zone is not the preserve of a monied few, for the Benedictine is known also for its ministry of hospitality, and so this privileged space in which silence reigns is also, through that ministry, made available to all who ask for it, regardless of their financial status. Given the Benedictine monastery's creative integration of silence, word and deed, it is little wonder then that it is the monasteries that became the new centres of civilizational rebuilding after the din of the Roman Empire came to an abrupt halt.

Matthew John Paul Tan is the Felice and Margredel Zaccari Lecturer in Theology and Philosophy at Campion College Australia in Sydney and a Lecturer in Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne. He is also the director of the Centre for the Study of Western Tradition at Campion College. He blogs at “the Divine Wedgie” and is the author of the book Justice, Unity and the Hidden Christ (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications 2014).


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