There was a newspaper report of an armed gunman who said, when told by his victim that it was a policeman that he was holding up, “You know, now I have to kill you.” That is the stuff of gangster melodrama, and may even be true. The exchange reminded me of "The Asphalt Jungle" which was a remarkable movie because, among other things, it violated the movie convention whereby people who have others at gunpoint keep talking until the person with the gun pulled on him finds a way out of the situation. Rather, Louis Calhern just starts to sweat and lose his game face as he realizes that his erstwhile comrades in crime are going to kill him. However much they talk, the gangsters in "The Asphalt Jungle" don’t talk about what they are doing while they do it.
Why does the movie convention violated by "The Asphalt Jungle" make sense? Why do characters say what they are going to do rather than just do it? That is the same thing as asking why such dialogue occurs in real life, because the movie convention is simply exploiting and adopting a usage of everyday life, in that dramatic tension arises from whether an assailant will speak or not. So why did the gunman in the newspaper report act the way he did? (Here, I am engaged in applying Georg Simmel’s dictum, which is contrary to the accepted wisdom, that the sociologist can analyze fictional as well as real situations because both make use of the formal properties of social life.)
The obvious answer, cued for us as the motive behind the behavior in so many movies, perhaps most memorably in "The Maltese Falcon", where Humphrey Bogart uses words to intimidate the gunman played by Elisha Cook, Jr. into losing his concentration, is that the gunman had not yet succeeded in withdrawing a sense of the humanity of the person he is assaulting, and needs some more time, marked by conversation that yet renders the person an interlocutor, and so human, before getting up his nerve to shot the gun and kill this person, standing as a human being before him. Billy Wilder got it right in "The Big Carnival" when the Kirk Douglas character milks the story of a guy trapped in a cave until the victim dies, and only gradually, in the process, comes to feel sorry for him. We feel the humanity of a person when we are close to losing the person.
Words are used, then, to cover up the silence of withdrawing humanity, and thereafter life, from the person. The person is now to become considered and soon will be like a stone, some combination of chemicals. The relation of words to death explains what death means, both literally and metaphorically. Live people cannot speak with dead people, dead people being those people with whom they no longer speak. So the weak minded devise ceremonies, like séances, whereby they can literally speak with the dead. And the strong minded mourn those who have departed by saying we can only speak to them and have them speak to us through our memories of them and how what we think they say to us in our dreams or speculations is what our minds now make of our memories of them. Moreover, people speak of people still alive as “dead to us”, which means that we no longer speak of them, not only because we are no longer their friends or their lovers, but because we and they have harmed one another enough that we no longer wish to be on speaking terms with them, even as memories. People are said to take a long time to go through the mourning process, perhaps because, like the loss of friendship, it is a two step process: first the reconstructed memory of what might have been said or done, and then the suppressed (rather than the repressed memory) of what is now finally over.
Death as the special relationship among the living which occurs when the relationship is overtaken by silence is Shakespeare’s view on the matter. He has Hamlet say “The rest is silence”, since Hamlet’s own speechifying as well as acting as well as his acts (as well as the number of acts in the play) are now over. What follows is Fortinbras, a warrior, delivering a eulogy which portrays Hamlet as a warrior, which in some metaphorical way he was, in that he contested the king, a guerilla serving his father. That, however, is already to recast Hamlet as someone other than what he was, which was a man of many parts, sentimental, lusty, perverse, humorous, penetrating, and just a bit mad, all at once, just like everyone else.
This explanation of death as having to do with the withdrawal of words is not the one favored by sociologists who follow Emile Durkheim—which includes just about all American sociologists. Durkheim thought that what separated the living from the dead was a ritual that recognized the difference in the social role of being alive and the social role of being dead. Rituals, in this view, are used to acknowledge and so make objective all significant life transitions. There are ceremonies for birth and coming of age and marriage and so also for death. Otherwise, we would not know how to behave: how to respect a woman now married, or to get on with life now that someone who had been part of our lives is gone. The community has to establish a person is dead so that everyone in the community, including the immediate family, can treat the person as dead.
The trouble with that explanation is that it may explain what the community needs to know but not what it is to be dead as opposed to having simply assumed some other role for the community, whatever one’s physical state. The issue of the meaning of what it is for someone to be dead to us is experienced in our having to rely on wills to tell us of a dead person’s intentions and on photographs to tell us what a person looks (looked) like. Moreover, whether or not there is any ritual to recognize the fact of death, the exact status of the dead is clear from the extent and the kind of silence that separates us from them. Are they saints to be evoked in our prayers? Are they nightmares? Are they remembered on their birthdays with a toast, and in between in unbidden sweet sentiments?
Elizabeth Kubler Ross was wrong to think our contemplation of death begins with denial and then proceeds through bargaining to some kind of acceptance. Rather, we say little because there is nothing to say. There is nothing to bargain about and so nothing to accept, only something to become resigned to. Christianity talks a good deal about death, and that can be considered a morbid fascination, or else a story of how to be released from death, of a rebirth into life, whether spiritual or actual, in which case Christianity triumphs over death because it extends the story of life beyond death, allowing people to bargain for their souls, and then transcend that, accepting death and what God gives them, while their mind’s eye notices that such is the proper posture for someone who would achieve immortality. Ritual is worthwhile because it plays a causative role in this now extended story, not because it accomplishes the merely social goal of reminding people that the group continues beyond the life of any of its members.
There are silences in social life other than those that are associated with death. Some of these silences cover the separation of a person from a situation, rather than from the prior relationship during which one of the parties was not yet dead. These silences vary according to the social class of the people who are making use of the silences. Jerry Springer presented a young man who claimed he had broken up with his girl friend, even though she didn’t know about it until, waiting off stage, she heard him say that. She was furious when she came on stage and so, in true Jerry Springer style, she cursed and pummeled him. Jerry asked the young man how he could say that he had broken up with her when, it turned out, she was living with him, they were sleeping together “every night”, and that he hadn’t told her he was breaking up with her. The young man answered that he didn’t love her anymore.
This is a response of a man who is not comfortable with language or with emotional confrontations. He might well have said that he was planning to break up with her, but that is not what he meant. It was Jerry who thought breaking up meant going through the social process of confronting a person and giving the person the bad news. Rather, the young man was using the phrase differently. “Broke up” meant for him no longer caring for her no matter what else they did together or what she thought. It had to do with his sense of the relationship rather than the objective condition of the relationship.
That makes some sense. He had already withdrawn from her, and so all that was left was the difficult process of bringing the relation to a conclusion. He knew what he felt and the words or the form of words that were used to describe this decision to break up would do well enough even if he was not using them very exactly. People do not always choose their words carefully. Only very educated people take themselves as responsible to their words, and that is because they have the skills to be held to standards of accurate speech. Moreover, the young man on Jerry Springer may be immature as well as inarticulate. He doesn’t have the courage to announce his feelings, however strongly they are held, because he doesn’t want to face the results, which will include not only her anger but the loss of a sex partner.
What is considered neurotic behavior in the educated classes is just the ordinary wear and tear of social life for the middle class. I would ask students in a course on everyday life to write about something memorable that happened to them the preceding week, even if it seemed trivial or not the sort of thing one wrote about for a class. They might write, I suggested, about a visit to a mall or having dinner with one’s family or what was said on the walk over to the class they were now attending. One young man wrote about dinner with his girl friend’s family, who spent the evening criticizing her for how fat she was, which hurt the boy’s feelings. He didn’t say anything at the time, though he tried to comfort her afterwards. Why did he stay silent? He knew that her family was being rude, even if it was to their own daughter, and that she was doubly offended because she was being belittled in front of someone she had brought to dinner to introduce to the family. He did not say anything to the family, but simply gritted his teeth.
Now, one could say the young man’s silence was the result of his immaturity or his status as a guest. He did not want to be rude. I would suggest, however, that he did not know how to speak up to diffuse the situation without being rude and therefore did not try to do so. Sidney Poitier would have known how to deflate a rude guest when Sidney arrived for dinner. It isn’t just age or some other category that makes one deferential; it is a lack of the skill to step out of the deferential situation without giving more offense than one desires to do so. My student could have changed the subject or paid his girlfriend a compliment so as to disrupt the flow of the conversation without stepping out of his position as guest.
Another student wrote about her problems with her roommate, who was a slob and came and went at all hours. She fumed and eventually got her dorm room changed. I asked her why she had not confronted her roommate and tried to set up some ground rules for living together. She said she had been brought up not to argue with people, and that if you did so, you would make them angry. So she suffered in silence, clearly in need of learning some tension reduction mechanisms that include talking about issues in a calm manner that allows compromise. The College, in fact, offered sessions on how to deal with roommate problems. Again, this situation is partly about immaturity, and one could say that part of going to college, now and maybe always, is learning how to get on with people. The point is that there is a skill to be mastered: how to talk to people with whom one is in conflict.
More important, perhaps, is the fact that these verbal skills are not already there, at least on the rudimentary level required for talking to roommates. I suggest it is a matter of social class, my affluent but otherwise lower middle class students (in their cultural tastes and dress and beliefs) simply did not know how to modulate their tones or their language so as not to escalate rather than defuse conflict, and so they decide not to engage at all in conversations that might settle their grievances.
For people in the working class, silence is a way of controlling a situation. Men are silent not just for psychodynamic reasons but because they know that speaking up will get them in trouble because they will reveal themselves and because women are better at using this weapon. I Love Raymond parodied this by having Raymond avoid his wife’s imprecation “to be honest”. Archie Bunker could not be articulate about important things even when he wanted to, as when he tried to comfort Gloria following her miscarriage.
In the poverty class, talk substitutes for action, and so the lack of talk is sinister. A person who says nothing is no longer negotiating, and so is likely to try unilaterally to take a situation into hand. People on Judge Hatchett are no exception. They are poor and their articulateness is a sham. They have problems with language in that they cannot separate what they say from the roles they are playing. They can be very articulate so long as it is a posture that does not need to stand back and ask whether what is being said is actually true. That latter, pragmatic feature of language, that it takes a stab at describing reality rather than pretending to a reality, is something that is to be learned and, so some researchers say, is modeled for middle class children by parents who expect them to explain themselves.
The key question about silences, however, is not the extent to which they do or do not provide a differential advantage in the race for social accomplishment to the children of those already in the more educated social classes. Rather, it is the experience of silences, what that says about the quality of social life. Silence is an ally of decorum. Silence says that the usages through which a situation is often conducted are not working but that there is no alternative to the use of the conventional as just standing out there to be enforced by the other person’s unwillingness to be shamed by what he or she should know is his misbehavior, even though it is evident from the situation that the person does not care if offense is given or is oblivious to the situation he or she has created and therefore is not subject to those cues. So silence relies on decorum and reinforces it by treating decorum as not subject to verbal appeal or overt invocation. Decorum is more constraining on the less well educated because they do not formulate very well reasons or justifications for being indecorous, while educated people can even stoop to describe their boorishness or unkemptness as signals of their “individuality”.
Silence is more salient as a device of domination and subservience the further down you go on the social class ladder, whatever its role as a cause of one’s placement on the social class ladder. People in the less educated classes speak but are not heard, and not just because they are powerless. They do not expect to be heard, to have their words, their powers to describe their own feelings or the objective situation, taken as seriously as, say, when I would call up my child’s pediatrician and expect him to treat something I announced as troubling as something he would think required his immediate attention. That, I suppose, was part of my “power” over my pediatrician, though it makes more sense to treat it as my own liberation into the power of words to mean something if they are used with care. People manage their lives less well, find them less satisfactory, as they are more and more hemmed in by their silences, and so silence constitutes a form of the lack of freedom, one of the many sociologists have adumbrated, along with alienation, exploitation, and political powerlessness. It is just that we all pay less attention to deficiencies that are not already recognized as political in character.