4 Talking 4 Talking

Collective Voice


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.

[In Tahrir Square, during the Egyptian revolution] when up against violent attack or extreme threats, many people chanted the word silmiyy, which comes from the root verb salima, which means to be safe and sound, unharmed, unimpaired, intact, safe and secure, but also, interestingly, to be unobjectionable, blameless, faultless, and yet also to be certain, established, clearly proven. The term comes from the noun silm, which means peace but also interchangeably and significantly the religion of Islam…
Most usually, the chanting of silmiyy comes across as a gentle exhortation: ‘peaceful! peaceful!’. Although the revolution was for the most part nonviolent it was not necessarily led by a principled opposition to violence. Rather, the collective chant was a way of encouraging people to resist the mimetic pole of military aggression, and the aggression of the gangs, by keeping in mind the larger goal: radical, democratic change…
What interests me here is the chant, the way in which language worked, not to incite an action, but rather to restrain one: the chant structures affect in the direction of community and nonviolence, calling for and enacting a nonviolent mode of politics.

Judith Butler, ‘A politics of the street’, 2012

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.

If I go to a march and the songs are not good I will tell you there is something not good with the movement because it means they are not together, it means they don’t march a lot. Yes, they might all know the song but it doesn’t move them, it’s not spirited.
You sing with your mouth and your chest and your lungs but that is only one part of you so when you start moving then the whole of you is involved … Now the song has got you, the song moves you like literally. So even an old man, a granny with a stick you’ll see them swaying.
South African activist Khanyisa

Omotayo Jolaosho, ‘Sung protest in post-apartheid South Africa’, 2015

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, through a heavy pause to singing the first words of Amazing Grace, and the audience immediately and instinctively rises and sings with him.


[Silence] disturbs precisely because the ideal of transparent speech is the presumed mode of participation in our cultural practices, a standard to which silence is not reducible.

Kennan Ferguson, ‘Silence: a politics’, 2003

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.

‘An axiom of organizers’, writes Jane McAlevey, ‘is that every good organizing conversation makes everyone at least a little uncomfortable’. The most awkward part is what McAlevey calls ‘the long uncomfortable silence’ — the moment when you make an ask and let someone think about their answer…

Alyssa Battistoni, ‘Spadework, 2019

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.

Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each. There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, ‘This… this…’; the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity; the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear; the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it; baffled silence; the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.
There is the speech that names things and reads off sentences of how they are; that defines an essence and reasons from it; that creates and maintains community bonds; that recognises the other as a person, asks questions, and exchanges information; that directly touches another by imperatives; that exteriorises and shares what one is feeling. There is the speech of the literary process that travels a thesis from the beginning to the middle to the end, and the poetic speech that alleviates an inner problem by bringing it into the public forum and then reconstructs the world in words.

Paul Goodman, Speaking and Language, 1973

Judith Butler spoke about the chanting of silmiyy in her lecture ‘A politics of the street‘, given at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 24 May 2012

There’s more about Emma González here, and both video and a transcript of her speech here. She spoke about it on The Ellen Show, as reported by Madison Feller for Elle, 23 February 2018

Jolaosho, O (2015) ‘Political aesthetics and embodiment: Sung protest in post-apartheid South Africa’, Journal of Material Culture 20 (4) 443-458. Khanyisa talks about the songs on a march pp 448 and 453; ‘By singing together over time…’ is p 454

Obama’s eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney is here.

The way in which silence disturbs is from Kennan Ferguson (2003) ‘Silence: a politics’, Contemporary Political Theory 2 49-65, p 63

Alyssa Battistoni reports Jane McAlevey’s noting ‘uncomfortable silence’ in ‘Spadework. On political organizing’, n+1 34, 2019

Emma González’s speech at March for Our Lives is here

Not speaking and speaking…’: Paul Goodman, Speaking and Language. Defence of Poetry, London: Wildwood House, p 15; the passage is read by Christopher Ricks here