December 09, 2005

"Silence assents."

I strongly suspect that most would disagree with this statement on the surface: just because I remain silent, it doesn't mean that my silence automatically indicates agreement with the spoken majority! It could equally well mean (for example) that I disagree but have no wish to create "waves"; or that I see no point to voicing my opinion; or even that I hold no opinion on the subject, that the subject is of no relevance to me. You have no way of knowing my opinion on a subject, unless I speak.

And yet: when the only spoken opinions among those in a reference group (who belong to the same group by dint of having something in common) are those supporting a specific line of action, the illusion is quickly created that this line of action is supported by all those belonging to the reference group. After all, this is all of group opinion that is openly seen ... and it rapidly becomes more and more difficult to be able to speak up at all if one does oppose the party line.

This is what is meant when it is said that "silence assents": not necessarily that the silent person (or even the silent majority) agrees, but that by their not speaking, they help to create and support the illusion of assent. It is a powerful illusion -- and for those who do not "know" the individuals involved, there is no way whatsoever to see anything other than the illusion created by what is said openly.

One extreme of "silence assenting" might be the sheer numbers of eligible voters who do not vote: in many places more than 50%. What we find here is the prevalence of the dedicated minority, and a growing learned helplessness in the majority who, the less they act, the less they perceive themselves as having any real power to act. A vote is a small thing: but it is the footstep into the belief that things can be changed. Not voting is also a small thing: but it is the footstep into believing that nothing one can do matters, ever.

Yet an individual remains responsible, not only for what is said, but also for what one chooses not to say. Should the reason for not speaking make any difference whatsoever to personal responsibility? In a society governed by a representative system of government, one could even argue that it is the responsibility of the individual to make their voice heard. For all practical purposes: is there any difference whatsoever between a specific line of action officially sanctioned and the illusion of such a line of action? If you do not speak up, you give others the power to speak for you ... and it is entirely possible you may not like what they say. At the minimum (although this barely scratches the surface!) it is the old conundrum: if you didn't bother to vote, then don't complain about the results.

AschIn the absense of principle, silence cannot indicate consent (for there is nothing yet with which to seem to agree): yet minimum standard of principle is virtually indistinguishable from consensus, or illusion of such consensus. Consensus may even seem to defy principle at times, when the common voice runs contrary even to what the individual voice therein, asked individually, might define as principle. In this context, the individual voice literally does not exist until after consensus has evaporated. (Think of it as the mob voice, groupthink, the inner resistance to not conforming.)

One difficulty in accurately assessing this issue rests directly upon one of the most interesting results found in group consensus studies. In perhaps the most well-known experiment of this type, the question was asked which of three distinct lines was the same size as another. What the subject did not know was that the rest of his group were confederates of the researcher, deliberately giving the same wrong answer.

Even though it was clearly the wrong answer, the average subject conformed to the group response in 32% of trials. 74% of the subjects conformed at least once. Even more interesting: asked later, the subjects remembered it as being the right answer.

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