The Power of Silent Protest

On Friday at the Dublin Conference created by Kathleen Lynch, the Minister of State, on ‘How to Get More Women Elected’, speaker Susan McKay chose not to attend.  The conference revolved around the newest bill which has instituted a 30% quota of women candidates for parties.  McKay, while CEO of the National Women’s Council of Ireland and supportive of the quotas, feels that there are other anti-feminist elements to the bill.  She thus felt it wouldn’t be right to speak and sent a replacement in her stead.  However, when it came to the time for questions and comments, one of the audience announced that McKay was performing a ‘silent protest’ through her absence and that she should have the guts to come and make her point heard.  This was met by a round of applause from the audience.  McKay’s absence and silence was no longer a non-entity, her absence was not non-existence but  non-presence.  By drawing attention her non-presence, the audience member gave power to McKay’s ‘silent protest’.  By acknowledging it as such, she brought recognition to McKay and her point of view.  Silence, then, is not always a powerless entity, it is a symbolic lack of speech that has its meaning solely in the reaction.  This works in a similar fashion to censorship.

Also on Friday, Salaman Rushdie was absent from the Jaipur Literature Festival.  Rushdie, like McKay, had a noticeable absence.  Rushdie, one of the highlights of the festival, received threats from Muslim groups and thus did not attend the festival.   However, the scare tactic has only proved to catapult Rushdie and his still-banned Satanic Verses into the media and a political controversy.  If Rushdie had attended the festival then Rushdie himself would probably have not received as much attention.  Rushdie’s non-presence has arguably made more of an impact than his presence would have.  By acknowledging him as a threat and therefore prohibiting his speech, his opponents have empowered him.  They have had a reverse effect.  What opponents of Rushdie and McKay have both done is to legitimize their causes at the moment by attempting to discredit them.  Silence is not solely a negation, it has a power all its own.  In a sense, Spivak has asked the wrong question, it is not ‘can the subaltern speak?’ but ‘does the subaltern need to speak?’.

It must be acknowledged that silent protest is not productive in all instances.  As the politics in Ireland has demonstrated, sitting back and hoping that the non-presence of women in parliament would produce an impact, it has instead been disregarded.  In this case there is need for affirmative action, and whilst I don’t necessary agree with quotas for female politicians,  I acknowledge the initiative of the government to produce change and bring about a shift in thinking on this issue that has hitherto been unseen in Irish politics.  This issue of female non-presence demonstrates that for silence to be productive it must be acknowledged and already be engaged in a form of debate.  However, this being said, silence does have a power, that if used properly can serve to turn destructive criticism into productive recognition, giving a reverse effect.


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