By Meredith Conti

The social media hashtag #whyididntreport recently materialized, as many hashtags are wont to do, in response to a presidential tweet. In this instance, President Trump took to Twitter to challenge the credibility of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers. If Ford’s assault was as harrowing as she claimed, Trump asked his roughly 55 million Twitter followers, wouldn’t she have immediately filed charges against Kavanaugh or “call[ed] the FBI 36 years ago?” In the profusion of #whyididntreport testimonials that followed, sexual assault survivors deliberately troubled what many Americans view as an uncomplicated and unambiguous choice: to speak out or remain quiet as the victim of a traumatic crime.

Silence is a deeply political—and politicized—act. It is an instrument of protection, oppression, and repression. It can mask or reveal, invalidate or empower. If silence is golden, it is also violent. Silence is a state-of-being/doing that is often weighed and interpreted through perceptions of race, gender, class, and ability. And silence is consequential. In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2013), Susan Cain contends that society’s “bias against quiet” has the potential to cause “deep psychic pain” for the introverted and reticent.2 Some US college fraternities preserve cultures of hazing by requiring oaths of silence, while monastic or meditational silences offer the religiously devout a means of drawing nearer to the divine. Despite its functional and conceptual slipperiness, however, silence seems most readily associated today with passivity, apathy, or cowardice.

I have been thinking recently about how we might reanimate silence in a political environment that is overwhelmingly, relentlessly noisy. Not a shrinking silence, but a bold, capacious silence that pierces and then ruptures the seemingly impenetrable soundscape. At the March 24, 2018 March for Our Lives protest against gun violence in Washington, 18-year-old Emma González offered one potential model of reanimating silence in what Mother Jones’s David Corn hyperbolically labeled “the loudest silence in the history of US social protest.”

Hours after the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School in Parkland, Florida, a group of teenaged survivors advanced themselves to the frontlines of gun-reform activism. In “Look to the Crisis Actors,” my print “provocation” appearing in Theatre Journal’s December 2018 special issue on Post-Fact Performance, I repurpose the term crisis actor to describe the twenty-first-century activist who knowingly engages in the performative as a mode of political intervention. Like Adele Senior, Michael Shulman, Stephen Sachs, and Tiffany Antone, I regard the Parkland students’ efficacy as activists to be at least partly due to their deep ties to the school’s drama program. The outspoken, poised, and unapologetic González, although not a theatre artist, is a self-described “dramatic kid” whose capabilities as speechwriter, public speaker, and organizer have made her the unofficial face of the Never Again MSD Movement.

0:01 González arrives at the lectern and looks out at the throng of cheering protestors. She touches her cellphone screen and then raps her fingertips on the lectern’s top, a fleeting smile crossing her face; it is the only smile her audience will see during her seven-minute speech. She wears an army green jacket adorned with patches and pins reading “We Call B.S.,” “I Will Vote,” and “March for Our Lives,” anti-gun violence ribbons, and a button of a teenager’s photo (presumably a Parkland shooting victim).3 Sewn to her right sleeve is the Cuban flag, a symbol that will lead some online commentators to decry her communist aspirations and others to applaud her Cuban American pride. Of course, the optics of González’s activism incorporates more than her shaved head, the thin choker around her neck, her green jacket, her ripped jeans. Given that the majority of mass shootings in the United States are perpetrated by white men, González, a bisexual Cuban American woman, serves as a particularly evocative symbol of resistance and survivorship. 

2:09 Thus far, González’s March for Our Lives speech and her February 17 speech at the Broward County Courthouse boast similar rhetorical patterns and tactics of persuasion: universalizing language (“everyone understands” and “no one knew”), the juxtaposition of clipped and ranging statements, and the repetition of keywords and phrases. Here, she seizes on the number “six” to measure the shooting, both in duration (“six minutes and about twenty seconds”) and consequence (“six feet under”). Like the oft-repeated refrain “We call B.S.” in the courthouse speech, González returns to the words “would never” sixteen times.4 First imagining the victims’ unfinished lives through mundane activities (“Joaquin Oliver would never play basketball with Sam or Dylan”), González then interrupts the conceit by stranding the helping verb without a message to carry: “Peter Wang would never. Alyssa Alhadeff would never. Jamie Guttenberg would never. Meadow Pollack would never.” Possibilities hang in the fragmented sentences, shapeless and arrested. Wholly absent from this public address are interrogative sentences, a prominent feature of the speech she gave a mere three days after the shooting; she asks no questions now. With the words “Meadow Pollack would never,” González falls silent, gazing resolutely into the distance. The next four-and-a-half minutes become a collaborative, unscripted composition between performer and audience.

2:28 González’s chest visibly rises and falls.

2:39 A shout from the crowd breaks the collective silence.

3:02 A smattering of uncertain applause ripples through the audience.

3:32 González no longer mediates her crying; she allows the tears to fall down her face, steady and unimpeded. “I cry a lot,” González recently wrote of her life as a trauma survivor and activist in a New York Times op-ed. “But crying is healthy and it feels good — I really don’t know why people are so against it. Maybe because it’s loud. Crying is a kind of communication.”

4:04 A chant of “Never Again” begins somewhere in the audience. The platform’s occupants join in the chant, with the exception of González.

4:30 González’s eyes close as she cries, listening to the crowd.

4:51 The chant dies away.

5:39 Two male voices shout, “We’re all with you Emma” and “We all love you.”

6:21 González is briefly joined by a fellow activist, who touches her on the arm and speaks softly to her before retreating. González does not acknowledge this interaction.

6:33 A cellphone timer beeps and González speaks again. In her final remarks, González narrates (in present tense) the Parkland shooter’s actions immediately following the gunfire, and then issues a warning: “fight for your lives before it’s someone else’s job.” She leaves the podium.

As I note in “Look to the Crisis Actors,” González ritualizes silence “as a means of memorializing the shooting’s victims, while unapologetically rejecting the codes governing protest speeches and the ubiquitous though insufficient ‘moment of silence’” (440). Because she leaves unspoken the purpose of her prolonged silence, González guides spectators into temporary states of confusion and/or apprehension, gesturing toward (albeit in a low-stakes, nonviolent way) the Parkland students’ disorienting lockdown experience. In “Emma González and the Wordless Act That Moved a Nation,” the Washington Post’s Peter Marks quotes the dying Hamlet’s “The rest is silence” speech in assessing the impact of Gonzalez’s wordlessness. “The absence of language, the extended pause for contemplation, remains a rare thing in public discourse, and even rarer onstage,” offers Marks. “A moment of silence is the ritualized form of respect we employ on many occasions to mark tragedy, but it’s usually only a moment. Gonzalez’s silence was an act that felt, in its way, radical.”

But in reanimating silence, González recalls much more than Hamlet. Her precisely timed speechlessness evokes durational performance artworks like John Cage’s “4’33” (1952) and Marina Abramović’s “The Artist Is Present” (2010), both of which marked lapsing time through silence. Moreover, in creating a protest speech that prioritizes gesture, not language, as the articulator of individual and generational trauma, González taps into an expansive repertoire of silent activism. In 1917, nearly 10,000 African Americans marched in the Silent Parade to protest anti-black violence; that same year, the Silent Sentinels began their multiyear demonstration outside the White House, demanding women’s suffrage. Anti-abortion and LGBTQ rights protestors alike have sealed their mouths with duct tape, while the Tiananmen Square “Tank Man,” kneeling NFL players, and participants of sit-ins, lie-ins, and die-ins from the civil rights era to the present day obstruct, disrupt, and agitate for change by locating the engine of protest in their (un)speaking bodies.

It is perhaps impossible to reconcile strategic, performative silence as an activist practice with the myriad ableist and privileged uses of silence—and silencing—to subjugate, violate, and erase the disenfranchised throughout history. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have cautioned that “[n]othing strengthens authority as much as silence.”5 And yet, silence has been a part of the artist-activist’s toolbox for centuries, a quiet but forceful instrument nestled among an array of flashier, noisier tools. The work of González and other silent activists suggests that when silence is lifted into service purposefully, without reserve or coercion and with an appreciation of context, tone, and timing, it can persuasively speak truth to power.

 

Notes

Embedded video: Footage of González’s March 24, 2018 speech, from the Guardian.

Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (New York: Crown Publishing, 2013), 6.

Here, González opted to use “B.S.,” the common abbreviation for “bullshit.”

For reasons I have not been able to ascertain, González did not name the shooting’s seventeenth victim, Nicholas Dworet. As Dworet’s name appeared in other Parkland survivors’ March for Our Lives speeches, I assume this was simply a mistake.

Qtd. in John Biguenet, Silence (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 96.