Some forms of speech are forms of collective action. A demonstration, for example, makes its demands insistently, repeatedly and collectively, in the form of a chant. The chant gathers up many individuals into a single voice, removing the immediate distinction between speaker and audience and reconstructing it somewhere beyond the gathering, between the gathering and whatever or whomever the chant is directed at. Its meaning and purpose can be confrontational, affirmatory, celebratory and many other things besides, but much of its effect is to create, however fleetingly, a collective capable of acting, that is of speaking.
Emma González survived the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, Florida, in February 2018. Her speech at the Rally to Support Firearm Safety Legislation in Fort Lauderdale three days later culminated in a litany of arguments made against gun control, each followed by a declaratory ‘We call BS’. As she goes on, the crowd joins in: ‘I knew I would get my job done properly at that rally if I got people chanting something. And I thought ‘We call BS’ has four syllables, that’s good, I’ll use that’.
Singing makes it possible to use voice without needing to speak, that is to articulate, to formulate and express new, coherent and grammatical thought in sequence, for the substantive element of speech is already available, provided in the words of the song. Singing merges multiple voices into one; each singer is also a listener; the song or chant is the way the crowd speaks to itself, expresses and realises itself as an entity.
Singing seems more physical than talk, involving and engaging the body as well as the head. It is usually done standing, often moving, swaying or dancing. The song carries, too, collective voice reaching further than any single one can, but also in the sense that it is picked up elsewhere; it carries from one setting to the next. In South Africa, singing is a familiar and expected part of protest, a standard practice, how protest is done. ‘By singing together over time, activists created a shared framework that grounded collective action and improvisation among one another and during confrontations with opponents. This shared framework provided orientation such that each protest or organizational performance could be created…’.
On the bus to Washington there was singing, too: gospel songs, folk songs – Down by the Riverside (Ain’t Gonna Study War No More), Blowing in the Wind, We shall Overcome, Whole World in his Hands, We Shall Not Be Moved – songs which blur the boundary between religion and politics because they’re about something fundamental to both, the creation and continuity of community. This is the significance – and the power – of Obama’s eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of nine African Americans killed by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015. He moves from speaking about a reservoir of goodness, to the idea of grace, though a heavy pause to singing the first words of Amazing Grace, and the audience immediately and instinctively rises and sings with him.
And then there is silence. It’s not that there is silence until we speak, but that we do silence. Silence is not the simple absence of speech but something that exists between people. It may be an expression of power or the lack of it, a sign of approval, acknowledgement or acquiescence, of resistance or exclusion. It is a form of action, which may include refusing to act.
Emma González went on to help organize the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington in March 2018. She spoke briefly, naming the victims of the Stoneman Douglas shooting and noting what they would never now do. Then she fell silent, looked up from the lectern and stared straight ahead. She sustains the silence only through an effort of will; the crowd is uncertain, offers brief ripples of applause; a chant of ‘Never again!’ breaks out and dies away. González closes her eyes in long blinks; there’s a tear and she sets her face again; other faces are strained, hands wipe away tears. Finally, a timer beeps and she explains it’s six minutes and twenty seconds since she began, the time the shooting took. The silence has been symbolic, significant, an act of remembrance and of representation.