Silence Is Not Context, Silence Is a Choice

When it comes to the media, erasing contexts is a choice that serves a purpose.

While silence as stillness is great, I believe there is a kind of silence that shouldn’t be celebrated. It should be identified, analysed, and broken, with no hesitation.

It’s the silence we encounter in the mainstream media, especially regarding people to whom it – and other forces falling into the category of “the powerful” – assigns a lesser value.

How do we know that? Simple: because if it didn’t, we would be hearing loud drums instead.

Last week, we saw yet another example of that, when a teenage Palestinian boy was shot and killed by the Israeli forces during a protest in al-Mughayyir, a village near Ramallah.

There was no noticeable outrage in the media, no Twitter storms, no clearly trending hashtags. 

It wasn’t complete media silence, but it was silent enough to point to a tragic twofold layer surrounding his death: both the context of his death and the seeming invisibility of this context. 

Context: a military occupation, where protests – and casualties – are common, so they’re not really news. There’s just too much to report on, and the element of novelty would run out soon.

Invisibility of this same context: whatever the context is, it’s better not to explore it too much. It might get presented as a one-off incident, a tragedy floating in the air of ahistoricism, of no cause and effect, no real perpetrators, and no clear victims. Sometimes, the context gets flipped completely: what was the victim doing there in the first place? Why was a child at a protest? Where were the parents? (You know, the familiar “What was she wearing?”).

It is a good question though: why was a child at a protest?

Hebron, oPT

I think this is what we’re often seeing:

The story is the shooting, not the occupation.

The story is the toppling of a statue, not why it was there.

The story is people crossing the border, not the military juntas supported by certain governments.

The story is the flood, not why we’re having more floods.

The story is the bad Saudi Arabia bombing Yemen, not who’s selling the weapons.

The story is the same teenage boy killed, not who’s giving billions to whom in military aid.

Do you see it?

Erasing contexts is a choice that serves a purpose. 

That is not to say every news piece has to turn into a policy paper; it is to say that some news outlets are able to give us the quick context in the format that piece allows. 

“The occupied West Bank”.

Illegal settlements”. 

(Some news outlets can give us even more, thankfully)

As Paulo Freire writes, “For the oppressors <…> it is always the oppressed who are disaffected, who are ‘violent’, ‘barbaric’, ‘wicked’ or ‘ferocious’ when they react to the violence of the oppressors.” Paulo warns us about flipped contexts.

Just like we have to notice flipped contexts, we have to notice the language of erased context. We have to notice what isn’t (it’s really hard!).

There is a powerful quote by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a Russian writer and filmmaker (I believe I have discovered it in one of John Pilger’s documentaries): 

“When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.”

Sunset in Ramallah, oPT

In short, if we’re up for it, we are given a precious task: to notice the silence itself. 

It’s a tough process of learning and unlearning, but I believe it’s worth it. Like any major system, let’s start by breaking it bit by bit. 

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