- The Sound of Silence: A Viewer’s Guide to Emma González’s March for Our Lives Speech1
The social media hashtag #whyididntreport recently materialized, as many hashtags are wont to do, in response to a presidential tweet. In this instance, President Trump took to Twitter to challenge the credibility of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers. If Ford’s assault was as harrowing as she claimed, Trump asked his roughly 55 million Twitter followers, wouldn’t she have immediately filed charges against Kavanaugh or “call[ed] the FBI 36 years ago?” In the profusion of #whyididntreport testimonials that followed, sexual assault survivors deliberately troubled what many Americans view as an uncomplicated and unambiguous choice: to speak out or remain quiet as the victim of a traumatic crime.
Silence is a deeply political—and politicized—act. It is an instrument of protection, oppression, and repression. It can mask or reveal, invalidate or empower. If silence is golden, it is also violent. Silence is a state-of-being/doing that is often weighed and interpreted through perceptions of race, gender, class, and ability. And silence is consequential. In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2013), Susan Cain contends that society’s “bias against quiet” has the potential to cause “deep psychic pain” for the introverted and reticent.2 Some US college fraternities preserve cultures of hazing by requiring oaths of silence, while monastic or meditational silences offer the religiously devout a means of drawing nearer to the divine. Despite its functional and conceptual slipperiness, however, silence seems most readily associated today with passivity, apathy, or cowardice.
I have been thinking recently about how we might reanimate silence in a political environment that is overwhelmingly, relentlessly noisy. Not a shrinking silence, but a bold, capacious silence that pierces and then ruptures the seemingly impenetrable [End Page E-8] soundscape. At the March 24, 2018 March for Our Lives protest against gun violence in Washington, 18-year-old Emma González offered one potential model of reanimating silence in what Mother Jones’s David Corn hyperbolically labeled “the loudest silence in the history of US social protest.”
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Hours after the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School in Parkland, Florida, a group of teenaged survivors advanced themselves to the frontlines of gun-reform activism. In “Look to the Crisis Actors,” my print “provocation” appearing in Theatre Journal’s December 2018 special issue on Post-Fact Performance, I repurpose the term crisis actor to describe the twenty-first-century activist who knowingly engages in the performative as a mode of political intervention. Like Adele Senior, Michael Shulman, Stephen Sachs, and Tiffany Antone, I regard the Parkland students’ efficacy as activists to be at least partly due to their deep ties to the school’s drama program. The outspoken, poised, and unapologetic González, although not a theatre artist, is a self-described “dramatic kid” whose capabilities as speechwriter, public speaker, and organizer have made her the unofficial face of the Never Again MSD Movement.
0:01 González arrives at the lectern and looks out at the throng of cheering protestors. She touches her cellphone screen and then raps her fingertips on the lectern’s top, a fleeting smile crossing her face; it is the only smile her audience will see during her seven-minute speech. She wears an army green jacket adorned with patches and pins reading “We Call B.S.,” “I Will Vote,” and “March for Our Lives,” anti-gun violence ribbons, and a button of a teenager’s photo (presumably a Parkland shooting victim).3 Sewn to her right sleeve is the Cuban flag, a symbol that will lead some online commentators to decry her communist aspirations and others to applaud her Cuban American pride. Of course, the optics of González’s activism incorporates more than her shaved head, the thin choker around her neck, her...