Silence and the Atrophy of Activism

  • Abstract:
    Symbols and slogans represent collective narratives, communication that is vital to the functioning of a self-identified group. Appropriately and perhaps not surprisingly, these communal narratives affect personal ontology. As Barbara Hardy notes: “We dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative.” Narrative discourse therefore connects and emblematizes identity through the sharing of collective themes. These narratives underscore and are affected by sociological and individual worldviews, as discourse surrounding them substantiates a sharing of a communal Self and establish avowal expectations. Similarly, narratives create a bridge between historical experiences and memories, an intersection of personal identity across social performances. As Shaul R. Shenhav writes, narratives “are consistent with the political logic of trying to shape the present in light of lessons learned from the past.” Therefore, narratives effectively underscore the transmission of social, experiential, and cultural knowledge to an individual, complete with behavioral expectations and historical precedents. One such cultural narrative emerged in 1986 in response to the growing AIDS pandemic. The slogan SILENCE = DEATH, ubiquitous in 1980’s activism, was only possible through the sharing of the legacy of Nazizeit. Widely printed on placards, t-shirts, and a staple at public protests, the slogan combined prevalent symbols of 1980s activism: links with historical persecution, the dangers of a shared communal silence, and a stark reminder of a physical if not societal extermination. I posit that not only is the slogan linked to the narrative of Nazizeit but that it finds its physical embodiment in Berlin’s 2008 memorial to gay victims of the Holocaust. These artifacts represent counter-monuments, rhetorical artifacts with an aim “not to console but provoke … not to be ignored by passerbys but to demand interaction.” This paper explores that interaction and intersection.