The Awesome Rhetorical Power of Not Saying Anything

“If only you would be silent
and let silence be your wisdom.”
–Job 13:5 (Revised English Bible)

The most powerful speech in Homer’s Odyssey is not a speech at all. It occurs in Book 1, when Odysseys travels to the Underworld and meets, among others, the great warrior Ajax. The two did not part on good terms. When Achilles was killed at the end of the Trojan War, both Ajax and Odysseus claimed his armor, and, when the Greek generals award it to Odysseus, Ajax fell into a blind rage and slaughtered a flock of sheep that he mistook for the generals.

But Odysseus wants to let bygones be bygones, what, with Ajax being dead and in the underworld and all. When he meets Ajax. He gives a long speech about how Zeus alone was responsible for Ajax’s death. He praises his strength, laments his death, and offers his hand in renewed (if post-mortal) friendship. And Ajax “answered not a word”—but his non-answer haunts us for the rest of the episode.

Ajax’s rebuff of Odysseus is total. Nothing he could have said, no matter how eloquent, could possibly have conveyed more contempt for his enemy, or argued more forcefully for his position, than his unwillingness to engage. This is as powerful an example as we have of the awesome rhetorical power of silence.

It is not very popular rhetorical strategy these days. Witness Mike Huckabee, who decided last week to ignore the emerging Republican consensus that men who want to win elections should simply shut up about women’s sexuality. In defiance of this conventional wisdom, Huckabee argued that women who think that contraception coverage should be part of their health “can’t control their libidos.” And when women objected, he just kept saying it.

It is too early to tell how much political damage Huckabee’s comments will do to the Republican prospects in the midterm election, but it is worth remembering that Republicans would be very close to controlling the Senate today if two of its candidates—Todd Aiken and Richard Murdouck—had just spent the summer of 2012 backpacking in the Himalayas with no access to cell phones or email.

One of the greatest fallacies of modern political discourse is that saying something is always better than saying nothing. Controversial points do not have to be made, stupid remarks do not have to be explained to death, and ridiculous charges does not have to be dignified with serious responses. More often than not, saying nothing makes people look wise, while wading into the muck makes them look like the muck.

This is true of national politicians, but it is also true of the political discussions that we have among ourselves. Perhaps the hardest thing I have had to do as an IVN columnist is to say nothing while people (mainly on the IVN Facebook Page) question my intelligence, my value system, and, occasionally, my parentage because they do not agree with something that I have written.

This used to drive me crazy. Now it only makes me really mad. And I know from hard-earned experience that when I am crazy or really mad I should not even try to participate in political discourse. In my more rational moments, I realize that nothing I could possibly say at such a time could have anything close to the rhetorical value of not saying anything at all.

We do not need to respond to every comment that anybody makes in any discussion that we are a part of—even if, or perhaps especially if, the comment is a direct insult. Ajax learned this lesson the hard way: saying nothing and looking wise is a much better strategy for expressing displeasure than killing a bunch of sheep and looking like an idiot.