In 1964 Paul Simon wrote the song The Sound of Silence. His powerful words are relevant to any time in history, but especially so today. In his recurring dream, he walks the city streets alone, in darkness. Suddenly, in a flash of light, he sees 10,000 people who are talking but saying nothing of importance; hearing each other but not really listening. He tries to warn them. “Fools!” he says. “Silence, like a cancer, grows!”. But they don’t pay him or the signs of prophets any attention. They are too busy adoring a celebrity god of their own making. The implication is that, ultimately, evil triumphs due to the silence of the crowds.
The Triumph of Evil
You may have heard this saying, often erroneously attributed to Edmund Burke: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. “Nothing” is an exaggeration because evil has been successful even when people speak and act out against it—though most in an untimely way and/or ineffectual manner.
Missionaries, diplomats, international business people, and religious leaders repeatedly cried out against the persecution of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians in Persia and the Ottoman Empire, yet the government implemented a policy of genocide, starting in 1914-15. Whenever an Ottoman official tried to prevent deportations or help the victims, he was dismissed from office. Several German allies expressed their horror but were powerless to change anything. Many Turks tried to prevent atrocities, but were threatened by decree with death if they interfered. How did the ruling party (the Committee of Union and Progress) have the power to do this? They were elected. Once in government, they controlled the army, the financial purse, international relations—the works. And then they acted like a dictatorship.
After the Young Turk revolution in 1908, the Ottoman Empire was a constitutional monarchy (sultan + elected parliament). Six years later the genocides began. Germany was a republic in 1933 when the Nazi Party was elected; within 18 months the party had eliminated all political opposition. Six years later the Holocaust began. So, living in a democracy is no protection from evil.
Silence Like a Cancer Grows
Certainly saying and doing nothing is a guarantee for evil to triumph. Public indifference is that guarantee. At what point to people decide to break their silence? Often when it is too late, as expressed by Pastor Martin Niemöller.
Much has changed in the last hundred years, even in the last twenty years with the rise of the Internet, social media and television news channels. Street demonstrations were influential in stopping the US involvement in the Vietnam War, but David Frum, senior editor at The Atlantic, conservative commentator, and former speechwriter to Republican President George W. Bush, warned recently that that kind of dramatic, emotional civil protest will not work today in the age of anything-goes tweets and the 24-hour news cycle. Rather than being a challenge to the current American president, street demonstrations allow him to portray his opposition as being against the system or subversive. “Democracy is not about protests,” Frum says. “Democracy is about meetings.” He suggests that showing up at representatives’ town hall meetings and offices, asking questions, is more powerful than “shouting slogans or getting arrested.”
Now is the time for the silent majority to stand up and be silent no more. Shortly it will be too late.
The Sound of Silence
I chose to include this version of The Sound of Silence by the band Disturbed for two reasons. It displays the lyrics, which might be helpful for non-native English speakers to understand the words (though please note that “god” should be spelled in lowercase because it refers to an idol, and the sign should flash “its” warning, not “it’s”).
But the main reason is that Disturbed’s interpretation is simply more powerful, and thus meaningful, than the original Simon and Garfunkle rendition. Make sure you listen right to the end. This version really makes you feel the danger of silence.