Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Silent Majority

Remember the Silent Majority? Maybe not. It was a Nixon Era thing. Well, not wholly so. A little research into the origin of the phrase uncovered a longer and quite interesting history.

It seems that, in the nineteenth Century, the silent majority referred to the dead. Obviously at some point in human history we crossed over from that point where the living population outnumbered all who had previously lived on the planet to the point where those in the grave outnumbered those living on earth. So the silent majority were those whose voices no longer were heard on earth.

But somewhere in the 20th century the term began to refer to those in society who, though alive,  were not a part of the significant “conversations” human beings have; their opinions were unknown or, if expressed, were ignored by those with “louder” voices.

Richard Nixon assumed that there was a silent majority of people who supported the Vietnam  War, and other policies of his administration, but who did not go into the streets to make their positions known. He appealed to that “silent majority” to support him for re-election. Some would say that they did.

It is probably natural for us to believe that there is a silent majority who, if they would only speak up, would support the positions we advocate. Why wouldn’t they? Our ideas are impeccable. Right?

Recently I was at a gathering at which I expressed my respect for the President. I assumed there were others there who would agree with me but only one other person spoke up, declaring, “I can’t believe you said that. He is a Muslim.” My stunned response was, “I don’t think I can convince you otherwise, but he isn’t.” There was a brief pause, a “pin-drop” moment, before the subject was changed and conversation trotted off in another direction.

I left that gathering wondering why the “silent majority” hadn’t spoken up in the President’s defense. I suppose the one who declared the President a Muslim left with the same question. Why didn’t everyone affirm his assessment of the President?

There was a silent majority at that gathering but their silence signified nothing. Well, I could attribute it to a number of things: shock, embarrassment, cowardice, indecision, discretion. But, in the end I know neither what the silent majority believed regarding the President nor why they were unwilling to express their views. I only know what I, and one other man there believed.

I just finished reading Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, a trio of books that depicts a totalitarian society in which the masses remain passive as atrocity after atrocity is inflicted upon others of their fellow citizens. Silent, as long as they are able to escape the brutality themselves. Eventually, in Collins’ story, a large enough minority rises up to overthrow one branch of the oppressive regime but it isn’t clear that those who survive the ensuing war face any brighter future – it isn’t clear because too much is left unsaid, buried under cryptic phrases or simply buried inside the minds of weary survivors.

My take-away from The Hunger Games, and the gathering I was at recently, is that silence doesn’t give consent. But neither does it imply dissent. Silence only confuses those who look to the silent majority for affirmation or disapproval.

Politicians are quick to claim that a victory in an election is an indication that the “people – the silent majority” have spoken, and have given them a mandate for their policies. But in our country, where the electoral turnout is frequently well below 50 percent of the eligible voters, even a “landslide” victory doesn’t begin to tap into the wishes of “the people – the silent majority.”

Elections are our way of expanding the silent majority to include the entire voting population. They tell us only which candidate the minority who chose to vote favored, but not which of his or her policies they favor. In most cases the candidates have artfully dodged any opportunities to declare clearly what their policies will entail for fear that the “silent majority” will reject them.

So, despite the noise of campaign rallies, and the blather of daily campaign ads, we march on in silence, knowing neither what the majority of our friends and neighbors believe, nor what those who seek our votes will deliver if we elect them. We are the silent majority.

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