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Hello “Silent Majority”. Time to wake up and abolish yourself.

May 24, 2015


It’s a colleague of mine, Gavan Titley, who tweeted one of the most instructive responses to yesterday’s referendum result. For Gavan, the vote in Ireland signaled the end of the so-called Irish “silent majority”, whose instincts could always be assumed.

Politicians have enjoyed a long love affair with the “silent majority”.  The two words have been put together for various reasons for quite a while, so it’s hard to trace a secure archaeology for the usage.  But most agree that it was Richard Nixon in 1969 who deployed the term “silent majority” in its deliberate strategic reactionary sense.

For Nixon, the “silent majority” were those who did not buy into the radical counter-culturalism of the 1960s – above all, the people who were NOT anti-war demonstraters.  Since, statistically, most Americans did not take to the streets to protest the War in Vietnam, their very “nottakingtothestreetsness” could be interpreted positively, as actual support for the administrations’s policy.  Nixon went further, ascribing a kind of positive virtue to an aversion to political engagement, a kind of decency attached to a modest disinclination to speak out.  Silence, it seems, is golden.

The “No” campaign in yesterday’s marriage referendum pinned their hopes on a kind of golden silent majoritarianism,  Reversing decades of victimisation against gay and lesbian people, they now proclaimed themselves the real victims in this referendum, declaring (ad nauseam) that people were “afraid to speak out” against gay marriage.  No concrete examples of victimisation were presented, no actual grounds for such fears were offered – and meanwhile the “No” campaign affirmed that in the privacy of the ballot box, the “natural” conservatism of the masses would assert itself.

Yesterday was a terrible day for silent majoritarianism.  A few weeks ago “Shy Toryism” appeared to have done much for the idea.  However, the complexity of the British political landscape belies such an easy analysis.  Cameron’s “majority” was built on something like 25% of the eligible electorate.  Opponents of Tory Austeriarchy were politically divided and Cameron enjoyed the overwhelming support of the national press.  Yesterday’s vote was a clear Yes/No binary choice in a referendum with a very high turn out.  And the Yesses won in every region of the country and in every single constituency bar one.  (When visiting Roscommon and South Leitrim, do remember that about 49% of them did in fact vote “Yes” – and after people have attended a few gay weddings, the “Nos” will become a minority there as everywhere else.)

It turns out that “the majority” – identified as clearly and unambiguously as ever an election has managed to define a majority – do not endorse the kind of stubborn conservative and phobic cocktail of “traditions” that certain politicians have been saying they do.  When the silent majority finally speak – they go off-message.

Politicians will miss “the silent majority”.  Because the great thing about the silent majority is that because they are silent, you can speak for them.  The silent majority are the ventriloquist’s dummy mouthing the song that power sings to itself through gritted teeth.  Virtuous in their silence, they can be written upon, ascribed with all manner of values that do not even need to be defended or explained.  The assumed majoritarian consensus of the silent justifies these values without any need for words.  Or at least words joined together in a logical or argumentative sentence.

Within phobic reactionary discourse, at the opposite end of the spectrum are the so-called “Chattering Classes”.  The virtuous minority is silent – the cynical liberal elite “chatters”.  Indeed – anyone who talks endlessly about politics is to be suspected, because discourse about politics (paradoxically) deprives you of political virtue.  The better informed you are about political issues, the more dodgy you are.  In the wake of Labour’s electorate failure, I read of one Blairite strategist who blamed everything on the influence of Polly Toynbee.  Never mind whether what Polly Toynbee was telling the truth or not, never mind whether her views on inequality could be logically or empirically proved or disproved – her status as a Chattering Class Warrior discredited everything and everyone around her.  In this Blairite’s world, in order to succeed in politics you must inhabit a world of vaguely assumed positive and negative political tropes and above all, stop talking about actual political issues.

The great thing about yesterday’s vote was that it demonstrated that Ireland has not been the nation that certain people have said it was.  It demonstrated the intelligence and generosity of a demonstrable “majority”.  Above all, it demonstrated the complexity of the Irish people, their capacity to react to circumstances and embrace change.  They may not chatter all the time, but their silence is no longer available for appropriation, no longer to be easily assumed and co-opted by political forces with a vested interest in silence.

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