02/26/2007 10:13 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Silence and the Public Sphere

The great irony of American public life today is this: never before have we so fully democratized political speech, yet never before have we so thoroughly misunderstood the nature and meaning of political silence.

To see what I mean, we need to pause for a moment to look at silence and authority in general. Up until two generations ago -- when it was still plausible for a democratic nation-state to claim a divine sanction or absolute sovereignty -- silence always related to authority between the one extreme of complete obedience and the other of total dissent. History is replete with examples of each, but the clearest are actually found in the Judeo-Christian scriptures: think of the unsettling silence with which Abraham's obedience attends God's command in Genesis 12, or the knowing silence with which Christ meets Pilate's all-important question in John 18. The former signals a complete submission to authority; the latter its utter rejection.

Crucially, today neither extreme is possible. In a public sphere assured of free speech, silence conveys neither the total dissent to which the radical protestor aspires nor the perfect obedience toward which the radical patriot strives. On the contrary, the protection of speech renders all silence at least partly collusive and partly defiant.

What this means for us is twofold. First, it means that political silence instead serves as the guarantor of political meaning. Any time silence is stripped of an evaluative function, it becomes the principle criterium by which the sincerity of a given utterance is judged. Consider your last genuine conversation: the fact that the other person knew you would remain silent as they spoke, and vice versa, is what made the conversation possible. Likewise, when we stand silently in the public sphere, we signal an active engagement with the deliberative process that is part and parcel of democratic life; we create the conditions each of us needs to speak. By contrast, if all each of us ever did was talk, we would reduce political speech to naked self-interest.

Which brings us to point two. The genius of the founding fathers was in part the foresight with which they inserted the freedoms of speech and assembly in the Bill of Rights. Yet what the founders did not foresee was the way in which the property protections to which those freedoms were adjoined would turn the public sphere on its head. Sagacious as the founders may have been, they had become so blinded by the virtues of a classical model for the body politic - in which landed citizens, their wealth static and secure, would have neither cause nor inclination to place their own interests above those of the commonwealth - that they failed to anticipate just how radically the structures and behaviors of the free market would come to shape the public sphere itself.

Although that reshaping began as early as Washington's presidency, we have largely been blind to it since the Civil War. Once the railroad and telegram nationalized our public life in the late 19th century, political speech on a national scale - first in print, then in broadcast media - became too capital intensive for the vast majority of the American citizenry to afford. And after you had to buy your way into the debate to begin with, the commercialization of American public life became a casual fact that need not be mentioned, let alone remedied.

Fortunately, the internet revolution that YouTube, Blogger, and Odeo currently represent has upended that dynamic. But that just means we're back to where we started: for the first time since the days of Franklin's press, the commercialization of our public sphere means not that too few people can speak, but that too few might listen.

How to address that issue I'm not entirely sure. We are incredibly blessed to live in an era in which governments acknowledge the contingency of their authority and the line between speech and silence is no longer a matter of life and death. But the subtle creep of self-interest poses a more insidious threat, in a way, than the obvious evils of the demigod or tyrant.

The only sure way to contain that threat is for each of us to come to terms with the necessity and meaning of political silence. I'm not saying we all need to refrain from speaking publicly for a year, as I largely just did. But I am saying that if we want to take full advantage of the blessing that our democracy represents, we would do well to put our own thoughts on hold for a moment, and familiarize ourselves with those of our neighbor instead.