The remarkable power of silence

I have to admit it. I do love a good verbal battle. A vigorous crossing of word-swords. Where you can hear the virtual cling! and clang! of the blows being meted out by intellectual pugilists locked in combat. Somehow this stirs the sporting part of me — gets my blood up. I’m raring to go. Especially if the topic at hand is something I feel I’ve got some sort of stake in, whether the argument directly involves me or not. I’m whipping out the épée and joining the melee. And if there are old enemies afoot — people I’ve fought before — so much the better. I know the strengths and weaknesses of the foe, and can better plan my attacks and my defense.

What almost never occurs to me, though, is to be silent. Just… not say anything. Don’t attack, but also don’t defend. Don’t even recognize that a verbal joust of any sort is taking place. Proceed as if the field is clear, only the chirping of birds can be heard in the far-off trees.

When I went down to California earlier this year, I had some very nice people pull me aside and say, “Look Brad, you really have to stop rushing into these on-line fights. It’s going to be bad for your career and it’s going to earn you a bad reputation.”

I can’t say I thought any of that advice to be wrong. I just don’t have very good control over my poorer instincts — the want to scrap when the scrapping is good. Not scrap for its own sake, no, but when there seems to be principle at stake, or when someone does seem truly out of line — or more usually, firing with both barrels on someone else who doesn’t seem to deserve it — I’m all in. Guns out, hammers cocked. Bring it.

During WisconFail — because really, it’s not about Elizabeth Moon any more, but rather the con’s responses to Moon and Moon’s detractors — I observed something very remarkable. While verbal fists were flying and I and many others were leaping about, the chief target in all this remained quiet. Just sort of… stood there and didn’t make a move, nor say much of anything. The bar fight was in high gear all around her, but while all of us were headpunching and gouging out eyes, Elizabeth Moon just seemed to sigh and let it all pass over and through her.

Only once did she ever publicly acknowledge what was happening — and then, only in the mildest of terms, with a fairly clear coda: there will be no further discussion on this issue in my space.

When I look at what Moon has done — how her silence in the midst of the storm has actually been the most powerful statement of all — I have to skid to a halt and think about it. In fact, very hard. Have been thinking about it all afternoon, since my last post. How come all of us are blasting away, and the person with the most to lose/gain is just kind of ignoring the entire operation? I don’t know Moon and I don’t know her mind, but I am guessing that she’s got experience and years here which I don’t have. Enough for her to have learned that sometimes scrapping isn’t everything. Especially the internet kind, where nobody ever admits they’re wrong, nobody ever really changes their mind, and nothing productive ever seems to be accomplished.

Me, what was my stake in it? Well, I’ve got some old grudges against some of the loudest instigators of Moon’s disinvitation from Wiscon. People I consider corrosive and damaging on several levels. But is it worthy of me to borrow WisconFail for my own use? Am I denaturing the value of my own argument by hijacking the “fight” just to get in some good kicks at some people I think deserve it, or for making a point I think deserves making? If I think the other “side” in the fight is being predictable by always chiming in and volleying — regardless of the issue at hand — what am I doing, and am I any better than they are when I do it?

Back to Moon — silent Moon — I kind of stop and stare. And ponder. There seems to be a rather deep lesson here. Something I’m not smart or experienced enough to have picked up on. Before now. I’ve sort of had signs about it — people saying things — but my instinct for the scrap has still been too strong for me to ignore.

But perhaps the most powerful statement of all — the one that trumps all wit, snark and cleverly-attempted word grenades — is the statement that doesn’t need to be made at all?


The absence of words.

This deserves further thought….


8 thoughts on “The remarkable power of silence

  1. I’m glad you posted this, Brad. Earlier today, I was considering sending you a message about your involvement in all of this. But it seems you’ve already gotten a nice clear message. I hope it sticks with you. I really do. You’re so much better than all of that.

  2. I disagree.

    There is a certain nobility in remaining silent and ignoring the idiots. But in practice, it doesn’t work any more than ignoring bullies in grade school did, or paying no attention to creationists packing school boards. If nobody speaks up against the idiots, then the idiots will happily fill up all the airspace, and anyone tangentially wandering by the situation is going to assume that the idiots are right, because hey, nobody’s even bothering to disagree with them, right?

    At this point, anyone new who discovers the situation, goes to read Elizabeth Moon’s blog, and discovers that she isn’t even bothering to defend herself, will assume that the accusations are right.

  3. M.- or they’ll read Moon’s original post and comments on that post (which are easily available), and make up their own minds about what the situation means or doesn’t mean 🙂

  4. After the mob picked up their torches and pitchforks, it soon became apparent that Ms. Moon could do nothing that would make the situation any better, regardless of any issue of right or wrong. She has apparently chosen to not contribute to making it worse. Non serviam. I honor her for it.

    The message I got was that Ms. Moon possesses some admirable human qualities, among them wisdom, maturity, restraint, and respect for others. Not respect for the mob’s arguments and proclamations, but for the WisCon people who had to make a diffuclt pragmatic decision for the good of their organization as they saw it while under extreme pressure from said mob. And for the other GoH, who would inevitably be dragged into the middle of a scorched-earth war if the brouhaha continued, whether she wished it or not*.

    (*–the other GoH can handle herself quite well in her own right, and how she chooses to do so will be her own choice and will reflect her own human qualities. But she didn’t ask to be in the middle of this scrap.)

  5. I think that’s probably quite true. In fact, the age disparity between Moon, her supporters, and her attackers, suggests that wisdom — from hard years, earned — is very much in play. That’s why I stopped short. The person with the most experience, wasn’t responding in a way that I’d have expected based on the level of the attack. Made me sit up and go, “Hmmmmm…”

  6. Silence can be a handy tool.

    However, silence can often convince the opposition that no one opposes them or finds what they are doing objectionable. Thus empowered, they broaden their attack.

    I’ve seen a lot of silence in the community since the first of the fail cycles. The argument has always been to simply ignore it. That worked well enough when the targets were primarily writers on the political right.

    But then the list of targets grew. The Haydens at Tor, Jay Lake, Elizabeth Bear, etc, folks on the left of center. Then there was the out of the corner of the mouth accusation that Gardner Dozois may have been racist.

    Silence is definitely a strategy and a valid tool.

    And it doesn’t always work. These people will not stop at Elizabeth, or Jay, or you, or me, or anyone else.

    However, if we stand up and shout as one, “Enough,” maybe then they will finally get the point.

    We aren’t going to take it anymore.

    S. F. Murphy
    On the Outer Marches

  7. Murph, emotionally I agree with your stance 100%. It’s just like the Pastor Martin Niemöller quote, “First they came for….” Silence can indeed (falsely) signal radicals that they are unopposed, and that can invigorate them to step up their efforts. I have seen it suggested by a few pros that WisconFail is the first time the FaceRailers (blogtrotters, failers, etc.) have managed to professionally impact a fellow traveler. That this will give them a sense of power they haven’t had before. Whether or not that power actually extends beyond the bounds of an organization like Wiscon — a convention that already operates on notions of victim entitlements — remains to be seen.

    I like to think that both Wiscon and the FaceRailers have jumped the shark with this one. Almost every big pro who has looked at the thing has pretty much said what Nancy Kress said: Moon’s words are not the words Nancy would have chosen, but Moon is not an “ist” guilty of “ism” either. Wiscon has failed its stated mission — of dialogue — by basically caving and admitting that it has to be the “correct” sort of dialogue, and that even a liberal woman like Moon won’t be accepted by the radicals if they feel like they have a bone to pick. I am not sure how many other writers — or editors — will bow down before that kind of nonsense.

    The more the FaceRailers attack established, older professionals, the weaker they will make their platform — especially in the eyes of the other pros. Sooner or later I see a more or less en masse turning away from this kind of thing. People will decide it’s gone too far, that the accusations and the slandering have gone on for too many years, and the FaceRailers will wind up as a kook fringe group that is very loud and noisy, revels in its own revolutionary jargon, but is ultimately ignored by the central body.

    I could be wrong, but I suspect that’s what will happen in the long run. Too many writers are too individualistic to be cowed the way the FaceRailers want to cow people. They have a crop of fanatical fans and they have a very small orbit of writers onboard, but that’s it. Nobody else is going to go for this shit in the long run. Not as long as mob tactics and intellectual bullying are the hallmark of the FaceRail movement. They can’t play the victim card forever when it’s they who victimize innocents. Even the very liberal writers and editors won’t fall for it forever.

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