The Constant Background Noise of Silence

I sent this link to a friend.  Please view it:

After watching this, my friend said in a note back to me:

“…my gut feelings about the subject matter and the studies’ findings were in key, now for the right band to turn it up loud enough to be heard over the noise of  “What Is”, whose shrills have become the constant background noise of silence…”

I’ve been thinking about the “constant background noise of silence” now for more than half a year, and I keep coming back to this profoundly interesting animation.  I’ve sent the link to several other people, but the only conversations about it that have occurred were when I initiated them.  Is it because the video is not interesting?  Quite the contrary!  It is fascinating, and the arguments in it are quite valid.

Almost eight and a half million people have viewed it.  So why do we not hear people talking about it?  In fact, what we continue to hear more often suggests that people believe the opposite of what is said here is true.  Another friend, when asked to comment on the matter said:

“Well, it did make me think.  A lot of it makes sense.  But the fact is, that I’ll never get to work with a company that thinks like that in my lifetime.  We’re all ‘carrot and whip’ where I work.  I’d love for my boss to watch this, but I sure would hate to be the guy that asked him to watch it!  It might just make him mad, and then he’d be looking for a way to get rid of me for being a trouble-maker or something.”

That was it.  There is a constant background of things we don’t ever hear, but whether consciously or not, may be listening for.  Sometimes, if we think about it, the distraction of what we are listening for but don’t hear can significantly overpower what we do actually hear, but are not listening for.  Think about all of the sounds that you, willfully or not, tune out every day.

What are you hearing?  There are sounds constantly around us whether we are listening to them, or not.  It is almost like an avalanche sometimes, yet unless it is something unusual, or highly impacts our senses for pain or pleasure, we seldom remember it.  Think back three or four days;  just pick a time at random, and try to remember what you were hearing.  Chances are, you won’t remember anything in particular.

A professor once told me that the sound of his own thoughts often drowned the mayhem that was constantly all around him.  He said further, that if he concentrated on the deluge of meaningless noise all the time, he’d go crazy.  Perhaps for some of us, the discipline of a self-imposed deafness did not occur in time.  All in all, what you don’t hear can sometimes be more significant than what you do hear: when all the birds get quiet, or when the dog does not bark.

When you ask people to tell you about the Great Depression, expect to hear tales of unemployment, poverty, hunger, doing without, and the prevalent sense of hopelessness.  Sometimes we can also hear a story of cooperation, sharing, neighbor helping neighbor, and a determination of many wanting and committed to making things better.

But while such positive stories can be uplifting, they tend to draw smaller audiences than tales of gloom and despair.  Then there are those who would prefer to not have to think about it at all.  Their silence, whether it is about the good or the bad, is what roars to deafening levels.

Simon and Garfunkel’s song: “Sound of Silence” followed the assassination of John F. Kennedy in a reflective way.  Some things became silenced, including anything Kennedy could have said in the future.  Other things became silent not because of being made physically mute, but by choice.  Troubled times followed in the sixties, and the term “the silent majority” was used to imply that those who did not speak out or protest must be of a common mindset.

It was not true then, and it is not true today.  But there is often an assumption that silence means acceptance: that if you are not verbally against something, then you must be for it, and vice versa.  But the truth is more likely that the silence is more likely to mean that some people just don’t wish to deal with it at all.

Fact is, as can be seen in any country where tyranny is the rule, people are often silent not because they agree with their tyrannical rulers, but that they are afraid of them.  There are still countries where women are treated barely better than cattle or other property.  Though they make up roughly half of their population, they remain silent often in fear for their lives.  They dare not even speak of the oppression.

In 1938, did the German people believe Hitler when he told them they had to invade Czechoslovakia for the reason that if they did not, the Czechs would attack Germany?  Some did.  But many knew better, because  Czechoslovakia didn’t really even have a significant standing army at the time.  The German people who knew it wasn’t true, thought better of speaking out.  The background noise of silence drowned out reason.

It has been said that a mob can be moved to do something stupid that no single member of the mob would ever choose to do on their own. But once in a mob, even a rational thinker is not likely to yell out: “Excuse me, but are we about to do something stupid?”  They don’t because even though they are a part of the mob, they are also a bit fearful of the mob.  Though some may think something stupid is going down, the background noise of of silence on the subject will block any hope of expression otherwise.

Before Mr. Kennedy took office, Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his farewell address.  One of the things he said in that famous speech was:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”

He received some applause, and some said it was a good speech.  After all, General Eisenhower had been a hero of World War Two, and was a popular president.  But Eisenhower knew what he was talking about.  He inherited that military-industrial complex from Roosevelt and Truman, and even participated in it himself by continuing military and economic controls in the Middle East.

Our posturing against the Soviets, as well as the control of petroleum that could flow into Europe and the Balkan states (thus allowing leverage on global prices), maintained for us a position of strength in Saudi Arabia and Iran in spite of tremendous human rights violations that would not have been acceptable in even the most backward parts of our own country.  But people didn’t talk about that.

In the years that followed, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon provided us with additional fulfillment of Eisenhower’s prophetic remarks by our involvement in Southeast Asia.  Many spoke out in protest, and many who knew it was true remained silent.  Some remained silent out of the fear for their jobs, and for their standing in the communities that sustained the lifestyles of them and their children.

The United States went off the gold standard in the summer of 1971.  By 1973, oil had virtually replaced gold as the standard for the global economy, and it was not considered reversible.  Some remained silent out of ignorance, but not all of the ignorant remained silent.  Still, the silence became louder.

By 1979, three things happened:

(a.) The Rock Band, “Pink Floyd” released the album “The Wall”which included the hit song “Comfortably Numb”.  In the same year, it was released as a single with “Hey You” on the ‘B’ side, both written by band members Roger Waters and David Gilmour.  Perhaps many didn’t understand the lyrics, but I think some others who did found a “comfortable numbness” in not having to think about some of the absurdities all around them.

(b.) There was a movement to change the perception of “the silent majority” (which still did not hold to any single mindset) to calling it “the moral majority”.  But this time, it was to become an institution (though not even close to a majority).  Many of those presumed to be a part of said majority, yet not, made no point about it at all one way or the other.  Their silence blocked out the few who did.

(c.) After almost three decades of oppression, The Iranian people revolted against their oppressors.  Most Americans were shocked, and could not fathom how those people could see the United States in such an evil light.  They could not fathom it, because most Americans had no idea what we had been doing in Iran since 1951, therefore, they had no idea why we were so hated.

At the time, most people here had little knowledge of Islam other than that Cassius Clay had changed his name to Mohammed Ali, and refused to be drafted because war was against his religion.  While the world learned of the idea of a holy war, terms of cultural differences between Sunni and Shiite had no conversational street value here in the United States.  Even today, most people who hold such deep rooted hatred for the Moslem faith have never read, nor will they ever read the Quran.  But it is also true that the most militant among the Moslem world will take no time with the Torah, or the New Testament, either, even though all of these books have the same root in the monotheistic beliefs of the children of Abraham (which they all claim to be).

Because of the hostage crisis that began in Iran in 1979, the military-industrial complex was about to get a shot in the arm beyond its wildest dreams.  Even if you do not believe in the “October Surprise Conspiracy Theory”, it is a fact that the American hostages in Iran were released within 20 minutes of Reagan’s inaugural address.  There was some clamor about it, but since people didn’t want to believe it, the silence became much louder.

Additionally, most Americans today cannot discuss intelligently the details of the Iran-Contra Affair, but they do believe neither Ronald Reagan nor George H. W. Bush had anything to do with it.  They believe instead that a dozen or so of the president’s closest advisors did it behind his back.  That may be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, but the fact is, we did sell arms to Iran during that time when they were at war with Iraq.  Somehow, this did not make Saddam Hussein love us.  The silence got louder still.

I’ve been looking at what people speak loudly about: it seems to have a lot to do with what they are afraid of.  This is not so different from other primates, and other mammals, as well.  When threatened, many animals run away, but cry out when cornered.  I watched a documentary on a group of chimpanzees, and it was common that these apes would be very vocal when endangered, or made to feel tense about anything.

People are also silent about their fears sometimes.  Sometimes by ignoring them, there is a hope that they will go away, as in the case of global warming, or the lack of massive movement away from a dependency on fossil fuels.  Sometimes the silence is that the fear of reprisal for those who speak out is larger than other fears.  Either way, the silence is a constant background noise in the minds of those who wonder why others don’t see the problem.  Ha!  Maybe there is no problem, and that we cannot recognize it is what the confusion is all about.  Regardless what you may think, you have to admit that most folks don’t even want to talk about it.

So is there a silent majority, and if so, what are they silent about?  As long as folks feel their fears are kept at bay, they will not screech too much about them.  But there is another silence that is a concern.  What about those times when a neighbor helps you?  Or a stranger?  What about when you’ve helped someone else?  What about when a teacher does the right thing for a student just because it is the right thing to do?

Every serious professional in the restaurant business knows fully well the dangerous chatter that follows the dissatisfied customer.  The practice is to tell everybody about bad service, or bad food, and to bring it up often.  But the good dining experience seldom enjoys the same notoriety.  Are we so addicted to bad news that we’ve come to think that bad news is what everybody wants to hear?

No, that isn’t exactly true even though it does seem prevalent.  Remember the story: “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Andersen?  That the fabric was real was an illusion, and further it was said that it would be invisible to fools.  For that reason, no one wanted to admit they couldn’t see it.  When the Emperor (who also dared not admit he couldn’t see it) paraded to display his new garment, some in the crowd said it was beautiful, and others just said ooh and ah.  But many were silent.  It was what was not being said that made the most noise until a child spoke.  The news that the emperor was walking naked in the streets could not overcome the fear of looking foolish.

A child could hear what was not being said.  The child could see what was not being seen, even when there was nothing to see.  The adults had lost the ability to do that, and were even fearful of acknowledging the voice in their head that spoke the truth.  And because of the phobic condition that paralyzed their ability to face up to adversity, they gave in to what dominated them, and to what they believed would sustain and protect them.  And so by doing, even without a conscious effort, they turned up the volume of the “constant background noise of silence”.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Your friend sounds much smarter than me. A quote that intelligent sounding won’t come out of my mouth anytime soon. But what I will say is that this is why I love being a freelance writer. I am now allowed to become a free thinker, shaping my own destiny, doing the work I prefer to do instead of what I’m paid to do. I feel very Mission Impossible about it. “This is your mission if you choose to accept it.” I like this freedom and probably wouldn’t go back to corporate America unless I had a job like that – where I could have input that really mattered.


  2. P.S. I had to listen to the video while cleaning house, so I may have missed some of the animation impact, but my thought was that people didn’t perform for the big prize because they didn’t think they were worthy. Lack of confidence issue.


  3. Posted by on April 20, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    Turn up the volume of the “constant background noise of silence”. That’s rich!
    I was in a staff meeting this week and one of the people said she just received the order of booklets dealing with over achievers so she went ahead and read the entire booklet. Nobody in the meeting noticed the irony until I pointed it out.


  4. Van, between the video and your writing, my head is spinning. It is pretty mind-boggling stuff. What immediately came to my mind about silence was Steven Lukes’ book on Power that I read years ago. One of the key points that he makes is that the louder you have to shout, the less power you have and that the power in society is held by those who can whisper because they know ‘the right people.’ I’m just wondering how much this connects with your thoughts?

    As you know I love poetry, so here’s one on silence:



    Billy Collins

    There is the sudden silence of the crowd
    above a player not moving on the field,
    and the silence of the orchid.

    The silence of the falling vase
    before it strikes the floor,
    the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.

    The stillness of the cup and the water in it,
    the silence of the moon
    and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.

    The silence when I hold you to my chest,
    the silence of the window above us,
    and the silence when you rise and turn away.

    And there is the silence of this morning
    which I have broken with my pen,
    a silence that had piled up all night

    like snow falling in the darkness of the house—
    the silence before I wrote a word
    and the poorer silence now.


  5. Posted by Brett on April 21, 2012 at 2:53 am

    Sometimes silence is merely acceptance, or being resigned to existing conditions because you feel powerless to change them. Silence can also be a form of dissent, or perhaps waiting for the right moment when action will have the most impact. I really agree with the video you attached. It is something that I am struggling with right now. I make a good living and I am not entirely dissatisfied with how I am treated at work, but there is a point you reach where freedom and purpose become huge issues. What is the value of what I do, and what am I working toward? Perhaps they are similar to other needs that we all have after achieving the basics (food, water, shelter, etc…). Maybe we remain silent because we really don’t know the answers yet…


  6. Posted by little d on April 21, 2012 at 11:58 pm

    VanTwain, You do have a way with words my friend, meaning, words assembled sentencing a structured thought. I guess its a safe bet to make that all thought worded in English is organized within just 26 letters. Amazing to me, a Ponderer, that everything read in English will be a result of just those 26. Perhaps someday it will be remembered just how important, knowing or not, the capabilities of reason by word. Seems it might be a while longer before we grow weary of being under sentenced although.

    Time, “Big T”, as I like to refer to him, is so fleeting. In fact, Big T is currently fleeting by at just under 67 thousand mph. That is the known speed of Earths orbit around the Sun, or, the speed of
    life as we live it. I say this because despite the fact that we all will live and die within a relatively few trips around the Sun at 67,000 mph, few will have the time, or make the time,to condemplate the questions you have pressed so well above.

    It is both a pleasure, and a burden, when time allows such thought. Sometimes I have heard that its better not to know than to know and be faced with the responsibility of it. This understanding comes into play when questions arise of the Silent Majority. It could be of course too, that there remains little resolution to allerting others to such inquiry, we, as a People, have always had the seeds of both prosperity and destruction blooming within our midst at the same time anyway.

    But, as time has shown, and surly will continue to show, small groups of like minded People have and will continue to shape our immediate and longterm progress as a People. We must never forget this fact, nor the fact that such groups of People, will, and have been throughout time, responsible for the ball and chains we find ourselves dragging around today too.

    People as a whole all want and need the same things. I can’t think of any reasons beyond the thousands organized to prevent just that as to why we haven’t already accomplished such. A wise man once said, never underestimate the power of those, who under spell of past successes, continue to succeed. Indeed, he was very right.

    There’s Iron in those wise words for all to hear, but all will not
    hear it, for some will not listen, some will not know of that which they did hear, and some will cry foul to avoid its certainties.Its always been this way I think, so don’t wait on or be restricted by this reality. It is an asset to some currently that this is so, to bad for us they have used it for certuries for personal gain, but their success will show others how it is done as well.

    In my arrangement of another wise mans words, if you hear what you want to hear the most, the death of sound otherwise is certain. Say unto yourself that which you will say unto another. I am more than what I currently am, and it is that that I need to hear the most.

    Sorry to have rambled

    press on

    little d


  7. Posted by Mickey Foster on April 23, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    hurts my ears to listen, Shannon, burns my eyes to see……….the Grateful Dead


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