The Pros and Cons of PM Modi's Silence

Published: July 14, 2015 16:37 IST
One of the most famous statements in all of modern philosophy must surely be: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." What does silence tell us about the relationship between speech, truth and 'reality'? This foundational question was raised by Ludwig Wittgenstein in the resounding conclusion to the only book, the slim 75-page Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (TLP, 1921), that he published in his lifetime. 

When should one speak? Why should one 'be silent'? What are the things about which one 'cannot speak'?

The answer to these profound Wittgensteinian queries remains vexed. Yet, if philosophy has any value at all, it is that it is opens up a space for questioning. Wittgenstein might have agreed. A trained aeronautical engineer, he once asked: Why should philosophy be the same in the age of airplanes as when people travelled by coach? 

Quite. So what does silence signify in the age of Twitter?

Let me then try and apply Wittgenstein's insights here to a practical issue that has recently come to the fore in our country - namely, the Prime Minister's silence in the wake of several political controversies that have arisen of late. This perceived inaction has provoked considerable reaction. A vast majority of our citizenry are quietly puzzled by it while others, especially in the opposition and media, have vociferously demand that the PM 'must speak'. Well, must he? 

So far, the simple argument has been that it is entirely up to him. The PM, after all, cannot pronounce on 'each and every matter'. He carries the weight of grave responsibilities and, in any case, he has been away, somewhat literally, from the 'scene of the crime.'

The counter-argument is that, unlike his predecessor (hard to imagine a 'Manmohan-ki-Baat), this PM is a great communicator. He tweets often, and his radio broadcasts, where he frankly expresses apprehensions as well as aspirations, go out to the nation every month. Also, he promised his electorate a Bharat that is 'swacch' in moral as well as material terms. Thus, his present silence on 'Lalit-gate', 'Vyapam' and other political challenges is problematic.

Wittgenstein would dismiss both these perspectives as 'non-sense' - or not making logical sense. 

Each side, Wittgenstein would likely say, is engaged in looking at the frame rather than the picture. Forget the externals and focus on the facts, he'd say. Interpretations of motive are immaterial. In the 'picture theory of meaning' that Wittgenstein advances in the TLP, a speaker is obligated to compare the words he utters with the 'reality' out there. If what he says corresponds accurately to what he sees, if each 'fact' he presents can be 'verified', he should speak. Otherwise, he should remain steadfastly silent. 

So: 'When should one speak?' Answer: When one sees the picture clearly and only then. And: 'Why should one 'be silent'?' Because, once again, silence is the only option when one cannot decipher the real picture.

On the TLP view, then, the PM should not speak unless he has a clear, verifiable picture of the facts that he can state without equivocation. His 'freedom of speech' is, so to speak, restricted by what he does not know.  

On the other hand, if he does have a clear view, equally, he must speak and unambiguously describe the picture as it is, deleting nothing and adding nothing. It would amount to a failure of reason itself not to do so. 

When one describes the unvarnished truth, reason triumphs and silence loses its point. The only justification, then, for the PM to currently withhold speech, on the TLP analysis, is on the grounds that he is confused or does not have access to the true picture. If this is so, he could choose to state this unflinchingly in his 'Mann-ki-Baat', for example - and the electorate would doubtless respect him greatly for it. However, no form of self-interest, including an altruistic regard for the overall public good would, according to the Wittgenstein of the TLP, comprise good reasons for the PM's not speaking out if he actually knows the truth. 

Now, Wittgenstein's perspective, we note, is quite radically different from, say, the far more sociable warning: satyam bruyaat, priyam bruyaat, ma bruyaat satyam apriyam (speak the truth, speak the pleasing truth, but do not utter the unpleasant truth).

As this savvy Sanskrit sloka, sometimes attributed to Chanakya, reveals, there appears little place for cultural nuance in Wittgenstein's paradigm in TLP, which does not sufficiently take the two-way social interactions of speakers and hearers into account. The fact is, the 'truth' is too complex ever to be captured in its totality and this applies to all statements - whether made by whistle-blowers, media-persons, party-spokespersons, respected judges, Bollywood stars, ordinary citizens like you or me, or by the highest executive authorities in the land. 

And at this point, the third and final question I asked at the start comes into view: 'What are the matters about which one cannot speak?' Here, I turn to the Philosophical Investigations (PI, 1953), published a couple of years after his death, in which Wittgenstein puts in doubt the entire edifice of logic-based truth that he had erected in TLP. There, Wittgenstein mystically maintained that some things were impossible to ever put into language. They were 'beyond logic' as it were. However, in the PI, Wittgenstein argues that instead of any 'pure' language that conveys absolute 'truth', all  humans simply play a myriad 'language games' in social space, such as telling stories, reporting events, making jokes, asking, thanking, praying etc. The whole of language is woven from these countless activities.

Cultural context is crucial in language-games, as are rules and 'winning'. So how would this apply to 'not speaking'? Well, the 'cannot speak' clause would differ according to the specific language-game being played. On Twitter, for example, the rule is that one falls silent after one has used up one's quota of 140 characters. One cannot say more and this rule applies universally. Even if you are one of the most 'followed' people in the world, as is our PM, you are governed by the rules of the game as much as the humblest 'Twitterer'. In a political speech, you fall silent after your allotted hour; in Parliamentary debates, the right to speak is regulated by the Speaker and so forth. 

What you 'win' in most such public rhetorical games is approval - and 'followers', maybe even 'bhakts'. Politicians, in particular, are admirable masters of many language games. Our present PM won an unprecedented majority because he was able to convey to millions an inspiring vision of India. But since context is important in language-games, when the context changes, so must one's strategies. 

In India, where owing to endemic deprivations, millions remain voiceless, it is especially important that faith in the political process is reaffirmed in times of doubt and public anxiety. The present is perhaps one such moment where we are reminded that, in contrast to the all-too-familiar silence of India's disenfranchised, the silence of the lambs, political silence is, almost by definition, the silence of power. If the PM does not speak, how can the powerless ever hope to do so?

(Critical theorist and writer Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a professor at IIT Delhi. She is the author of several academic books and has been PI of a DST project on 'Language, Emotion and Culture'. She is currently leading another ICSSR project on 'The Capabilities Approach to Education: Access, Equity and Quality.')

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