Does Silence (Still) = Death by Christopher J. Lee
It’s been over thirty years since a group of New York activists took to the streets and wheatpasted the logo, SILENCE = DEATH, wherever it might be visible; its effects on queer culture are numerous and notable. Shirts have been screenprinted, pamphlets distributed, parallel slogans designed to spur further political practice: ACTION= LIFE; IGNORANCE= FEAR.
Any astute observers at a queer prom/record release party/pop-up hair salon/zine fair will find no shortage of SILENCE=DEATH tattoos; as a quasi-collector of activist-y body art, I’ve seen my share of triangles and bold words etched along ankles and arms, framed below collarbones, trailing across ribcages. Like many logos, its resonance is indisputably powerful, perhaps owing to the terrifying succinctness of its symbolic arithmetic.
Silence equals death. We will not, cannot, be ignored. Institutional, systemic oppression of queer people must be exposed and vocalized. Anything less is tantamount to existential and bodily annihilation. Anything less is the voiding of political representation, an abjection to margins, a failure of the crucial work of discourse.
The premise of this brief piece proposes to make evident the ideological bounds of this equation, asking whether its symbolic thrust can be clarified or complicated through cursory analysis of its stark nod to the vocalization as politicization metaphor. Does silence still equal death? Certainly expressing opinions, deploying one’s voice, declaring a stance, are all still relevant tropes within our current political climate. Indeed, vocalization has been an important metaphor for political action, probably for as long as liberation politics has existed.
In the midst of pride month, in which outness is emphasized, if not required, vocalization becomes all the more apparent as a grounding mechanism for imagining action. Coming out, speaking out, acting out, are all powerful expressions of gay liberation. It is not my intent to deny vocalization its political promise. Nor is it my intent to valorize silence as a political good, or censorship as a political necessity. Rather, I wish to parse the rhetorical implications of the SILENCE=DEATH logo, specifically through analytics that acknowledge systems of oppression as interlocking and mutually reinforcing along socially constructed lines of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or any another tenuous configuration of identity marker.
A simpler way of putting this: slogans posture at a kind of a universal legibility that occludes mediating forces of cultural context, competing definitions, and differing perspectives. If, indeed, silence equals death, who is defining silence, what values are being appealed to, and what values are being left out?
If silence occupies a kind of position of political inefficacy, the embedded incitement is to frequent and public speech-acts. But is this incitement necessary? In his sprawling exploration of what he termed the repression hypothesis, Foucault identified [Western] man as ‘a confessing animal,’ indicating that the interrogative functions of Church and State have fundamentally conditioned the self to issue truth-claims. So we are always, already drawn to autobiography—always, already equipped with a diagnostic condition to wield against and alongside prevailing social conditions [‘I’m a little OCD, a little bisexual, a little radical, a bibliophile, a seapunk, a klepto, a nympho, vegan, emo, alt’). Perhaps as a consequence, we don’t know what to do with silence, other than to dismiss it. Except silence is not monolithic, nor is it conceptually singular.
There are many instances in which silence is a viable political strategy, perhaps most of all when subjected to interrogation or surveillance. Some surveillance, as we’ve been reminded recently, is governmental, a product of institutional exploitation of public concern. But I use the term surveillance loosely, and, as many people of color can attest, commonplace social interactions spill into the interrogative mode with uncomfortable regularity.
As someone of perceived racial ambiguity, I’m often asked to explain my existence. “Where are you from? No, where are your parents from. No, what’s your ‘background’? No, what are you?” Not to mention the multitude of other questions that precede or follow, normalized as part of the social condition of relentless confession: “What languages do you speak? Where did you go to school? Why didn’t you go to school? Where do you work? Why don’t you work? What are your ailments? What’s your type?” The interrogative mode is channeled through micro-aggressions that render acceptable the incessant questioning of a person’s identity formation. In these cases, silence is tactically necessary, if not critically important.
The logic of speech-acts-as-political-power is especially problematic for people of color, whose assumed command of language is already undermined on the basis of non-normativity. It’s not that silence is insurmountable, but that surmounting the putative ‘language barrier’ through mastery of a language reifies already-codified assumptions about vocalization as political representation. This is to say that breaking silence for political needs is not neutral, but pinned to the very political systems that ‘speaking out’ should be driven to deconstruct.
The reasoning is not so obtuse, merely circular. Critiquing articulacy is complicit in the incitement to articulacy. One cannot be silent and complain of how conceptions of silence have been misconstrued. Whereas I could explain the manifold expressions of silence in order to demonstrate their depth [knowing looks, lewd gestures, uncomfortable pauses, tacit agreements, quiet resistance], I am ‘writing in’ or ‘speaking out’ to make them known. Thus those who come from cultures in which silence is valued are held to the articulacy mandate, even if they oppose the mandate itself.
Does silence still equal death? Should silence still equal death? It’s not that the slogan has outlived its usefulness; as a symbol of gay pride, as a historical link to the legacy of the AIDS epidemic, it’s important and effective. Death has a galvanizing heft about it, and the threat of queer extinction—the recognition that there are those who wish us dead— is far from irrelevant. But in the age of biopolitical regimes, in which life is given vague humanist value, and then given direction through mechanisms of social conditioning, control is perhaps the greater concern.
Faced with perpetual confession of our social compositions, our genealogies, our communal ties, whom or where we fuck, silence is a welcome respite. It may be that silence still equals death, but silence can also be gratifying, furious, cathartic, reparative, cutting, and most of all, rich with meaning beyond vocalization as political efficacy.
Christopher J. Lee is a recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School and an instructor at a Boston freeskool, where he’s led classes on psychogeography, apathy, and queer theory. He is an infrequent author of semi-serious poems, some of which appear in local zines.