Clearly, my first ever political science professor knew how to stun a classroom the political science way. During our first political science class, she chose to start—not with an introduction of herself—but with a situation. The situation goes like this. You ride a bus, and it turns out to be operated by a reckless driver. You feel like your heart is just about to jump out of your chest, and perhaps, you have been muttering prayers and calling out to gods that you make it out alive to your destination. She then looks at the class in the eye and asks: “What would you do?”
I could not remember whether someone’s hand shot right up into the air, but I clearly remember the uttering silence that followed the question. “Would you just sit there and choose to be silent?” She continued. “Or would you tell the driver off, telling him that ‘Well sir, you are responsible for our lives.” She then ends with another question, “How many of you would actually speak up against the driver?”
A few hands were raised. I was not one of them. It is because I myself knew that I am a victim of that spiral.
The spiral of silence.
The term, which was coined by the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle Neumann, refers to the “increasing pressure people feel to conceal their views when they think they are in the minority”. According to Neumann, this is driven by a human’s “fear of isolation”. This is drawn from the study of psychologist Solomon Asch which showed that people will eventually yield to the majority opinion because of peer pressure and fear of being perceived as deviant. Using the bus case given by my professor, my refusal to speak up is because of the fact that I have never witnessed any passenger to do so. The calm appearance of the passengers would impose me to just stay silent for fear of causing any disturbance. This is also coupled by the fear of going in a fight with the reckless driver.
This situation could not have been any more foreign. This is a classic scenario in a classroom, in which students choose to stay silent and not ask questions to their professor despite not being clear with some points. In the workplace, an employee would rather do his or her superior’s bidding rather than question him or her in fear of compromising his or her career. What is more, in casual conversations, when one asks something about an issue, the people around him or her would just say: “You ask too many questions, just do it.”
While Neumann’s theory has been widely used in the field of psychology and communication, the cited situations clearly demonstrate the dynamics of power and politics. The choice and pressure to remain silent indicates power. In this case, we may say that the driver wields power over the passengers, the professor wields power over the students, the superior wields power over the employees, and on a macroscopic level—the majority wields power over the minority. As a result, the act of asking questions and speaking up becomes deviant. Silence becomes the norm.
In this case, the spiral becomes a deathly system.
Despite the existence of human rights violations, impunity, discrimination, inequality, and oppression—it is a sad fact that these issues remain unknown to a lot of people. The more tragic fact lies in that fact that while there may be people who are aware of them, only a few choose to speak up about these issues, and even fewer who act upon these matters at hand. People become conditioned to accept the status quo, for then again, the mere act of questioning becomes a ground to label one as a subversive—a label which renders a negative connotation. What is more, the decision of the majority is perceived as the right one, making one feel that his or decision as a member of the minority is wrong.
We can therefore conclude that silence is not the mere absence of noise. It is political, for silence is a result of the power produced by a patriarchal society. Such dynamics of society therefore produces a populace that has stopped being critical of issues which demand analysis and action.
It is in this instance that the spiral transforms into a spiral which serves as the archenemy of genuine social change.
The spiral of apathy.
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