Universiteit Leiden

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Elif Kırankaya

Silence as a form of activism: 'It is precisely by being silent that you sometimes keep the conversation open'

We talk too little about silence, thinks university lecturer Gerlov van Engelenhoven. He has been awarded a Veni grant to investigate the role of silence in protest movements. Does silence sometimes really say more than a thousand words?

When, as  a child, Van Engelenhoven celebrated his birthday, there were clear limits to the conversation between his Moluccan and Dutch relatives. 'They could talk along quite happily, but topics like the colonial past were taboo.'

That silence intrigued him. Such a silence is often called 'collective trauma', but that suggests that silence is negative, something that by definition has to be broken. Don't get me wrong, it is often good to make subjects discussable, but in my case, my family members knew that they were on different sides of history and that it was not pleasant to discuss that at a birthday get-together. By keeping quiet about that, they kept other conversations going. I wanted to do more with that nuance.'

Shouting over each other

It led to a PhD study on the role of silences in the formation of migrant identities. 'Especially since the rise of social media, one of the clichés of our time is that you only count in the social debate when you have a voice. I think the risk of this is that everyone starts shouting at once and we still don't hear minorities, while also suggesting that this is their own fault: they should just shout louder.'

Sometimes this can actually make it more effective to remain silent, Van Engelenhoven argues, especially in the heated decolonisation debate. 'You see some groups deliberately using silence as a form of activism. We all know the silent vigil, but a group like the Grey Century also deploys silence. After writing the word 'genocide' very large on the statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen in Hoorn in 2016, they refused to explain themselves in newspapers like NRC and de Volkskrant. Silence then becomes a specific strategy, which can sometimes be more powerful than telling the same story again.'

Different dynamics

While in his PhD research he analysed this strategy in a rather detached way by focusing mainly on reports in newspapers and on Twitter, for his new Veni research he intends to enter into a conversation with people who consciously use silence in their work. 'I’m going to interview activists, but also artists and staff at cultural institutions. Ultimately, this is how I want to discover the dynamics of silence as a form of activism. It matters whether silence stems from an attempt at mutual understanding or disruption.'

No opposites

So, for that he will now spend years talking about silences? There is nothing contradictory about that, according to Van Engelenhoven. 'I have to think carefully about how I approach these conversations so that I don't overwrite the silences, but silence and voices are not opposites. Silence always needs a voice to be marked. Conversely, a voice always needs silence to be heard. That’s something you can talk about.'

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