The Fear of Silence
The election is on pretty much everyone’s minds. We’ve known for a while that there's likely to be a lag between when we vote and when we get results due to increased mail-in voting. Both sides have strategies for the ensuing legal battle that will occur if the margin of victory is small. Seeds of doubt in our process have been purposefully sewn. All this makes me nervous. There’s a lot riding on this election, both in policy and ideology. Not to mention the very real outcome where roughly 50% of the country refuses to believe the results. All this exacerbated by the fact that it’s logistically and, in some places, legally impossible to have the votes counted by November 4th. And there’s no comfort in the likelihood that the results will ebb and flow throughout the week as the ballots trickle in and with them their inherent partisan biases.
Many Americans will be anxious, on edge and potentially violent. I think it very well may be a time that pushes us to the limits of our civil discourse. In a world where we get breaking news updates second by second; where we’ve been spoiled by Amazon 2 day shipping and 10 minutes seems like an excessive amount of time to wait for an Uber; our patience will be stretched by an extended vote count. The election has already been tense and divisive, people on both sides will demand a victor.
I think this is the dangerous result of our collective fear of quiet.
When you walk into a store, a dentist office, practically any public space, there’s almost certainly music being pumped in to fill the space. I don't think anyone would argue that it would be awkward without it. When we go for a walk or a run, it's very popular to take your music or your podcasts to avoid the hustle and bustle of your own thoughts. Getting in a car is the same way, I find it excruciating to just sit in silence driving through town. Without it, stop lights and idiot drivers become far more aggravating. I know people that work with the TV on in the background, they put on mindless sitcoms to fill the air while they do homework, and as such have seen shows like The Office or Friends dozens of times. Even when spending time with close friends the instinct is to put on background music of some kind, despite the fact that we’ll probably be talking to each other the whole time. We, as a society, have a fear of quiet. We don’t like it when there’s empty space.
Especially in our new Corona-reality, the quiet is a subconscious reminder of the outside world. We all saw the pictures of an eerily empty Times Square. Many of us walked around our cities and suburbs to find them deserted, consumed by an anxiety inducing silence, a reminder that things are different now. And while for the moment those days are done as a virus fatigued public attempts to resume some semblance of “normal life”, we still fill our empty stadiums with crowd noise to relieve our fear and remind us of better days.
There’s a byproduct of our collective fear, we’re less willing to consume difficult media. Not because of some perceived, Bill Hicks-esque anti-intellectualism, or some Tolkien style sense of nostalgia, but rather because reading, listening or watching difficult material requires you to be in a quiet room, a quiet headspace. Reading especially requires you to be alone. There’s a reason libraries, museums and art galleries don’t have pop bangers as background noise. Listening to complex music requires something similar. This tells us that quiet is not necessarily defined by silence. Quiet is required by anything that necessitates dialogue between you and the material.
I think this fear is due in large part to the infiltration of the internet into our daily lives. Finding consumable content online is far too easy and is designed to be addicting. There’s a part of us that enjoys quiet, there’s a satisfaction to unpacking something difficult, to conquering adversity. But we lean towards instant gratification, it’s easy, and the internet has made it accessible. On a surface level, it’s difficult to compete as complex art when easily digestible content is a quick click or Reddit scroll away. Everything is so fast in the internet age, it’s changed us. It’s hard to just sit still without stimulus. I see it in my everyday life when I interact with well… just about anyone really. There’s this specific moment in the conversation; a quick pause and then suddenly it feels uncomfortable and I immediately reach for my phone as a safety blanket, even if there’s nothing there to look at. I know I’m not the only one who’s susceptible to this habit as pretty much everyone my age does it, sometimes simultaneously, like some kind of instinctual empathy.
It’s hard to consume complex media, it takes concentration, a difficult ask in a world full of distractions. Difficult material is often introspective, it incites a call to action, an analysis of self or of hard fought beliefs. It can often be dry, dull or require investment to get going. As a culture, difficult material has become less and less palatable and we’ve become more and more ambivalent about rewarding the part of us that likes quiet. Not because we’re afraid the outcome will result in some kind of change or growth, but simply because we’re less willing to do it in the first place.
It’s no coincidence that FOMO, the fear of missing out, is a relatively recent phenomenon. We’re bound to the world around us more than at any other time in history, whether that world is local or global. For the introverts among us, sitting alone in silence is no longer an option. I’m well acquainted with the feeling of the world spinning on without you, but being unable to muster the desire to go out and interact with it. Then that feeling of FOMO comes in and assumes that you can’t gain anything from staying at home. Even for the extroverts there’s a constant struggle on which event to attend lest you miss “the most epic party”.
FOMO is a function of uncertainty. If you’re not connected every waking second, will you miss a major event? In a world where there’s the potential to connect to anything, how do we choose what to be connected to? And moreover, how do we let go of the things that we inevitably choose to miss? The worst is when we choose neither and instead fill our lives with useless noise out of fear that the quiet will lead to some kind of ignorance. There aren’t many people my age that haven’t participated in their fair share of “Doom Scrolling”. The phenomena of mindlessly scrolling on social media, bouncing back and forth between dreary news and cat pictures. This kind of noise gives us the illusion that we are informed, that we’re not missing anything. I know the vicious cycle all too well.
In only a couple of weeks we’ll be sitting in political silence for the first time in a long time. 2 years of building, the typical election cycle and it will be likely undercut by the feeling of anticlimax, of quiet. And that quiet will be terrifying. It will consist of all of us sitting with our own thoughts and trying to acquiesce our political and existential dread. It's very possible that some will express that tension with action, some possibly with violence.
As I said earlier, quiet is not the same as silence and there obviously won’t be any semblance of silence. Talking heads will posture and speculate with big red and blue maps. Both parties will be up in arms and radicals from both sides will be as loud, if not louder than they’ve ever been. But this is just screaming into the void, a coping mechanism against our fear. Our fear will manifest certainly as tears and bluster and perhaps with blood; the quiet will take the form of uncertainty; an anxiety caused by unpracticed patience and a lack of any kind of dialogue with self or with others.