In many Western countries, extroversion, outgoingness, talkativeness, and charismatic salesmanship are considered requirements for success and happiness. In such cultures, introverts are not just silent, but voiceless.
In today’s society, to call a person or a group “voiceless” is to call them unjustifiably undervalued, unappreciated, or unacknowledged. But how can you be silenced if you’ve wilfully opted for silence?
In recent years, the power of quiet has made headlines. For example, Susan Cain’s book Quiet—The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking became a Sunday Times Bestseller. Cain encourages the quiet and introverted to embrace their fondness for silence and live out dreams that flourish in the absence of talk. “Knowledge matters. Deep thought matters. Mastery of a subject matters,” she says, “even in a world that can’t stop talking.”
After all, some things are valuable in such a way that speech doesn’t do them justice in the first place. They are inexpressible, their value unable to be appreciated through words. Philosophers have long been fascinated by such ineffable concepts. In Twilight of the Idols, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche starkly expresses that language doesn’t always meet its needs: “We have already gone beyond whatever we have words for. In all talk there is a grain of contempt. Language, it seems, was invented only for what is average, medium, communicable. By speaking the speaker immediately vulgarizes himself.”
The things that are incommunicable in words often allow for deep and meaningful expression by other means. Dancers know it. Musicians know it. Sculptors, photographers, and athletes know it, as well as coders, mathematicians, and architects.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, a famous engineer turned philosopher, knew it too. His celebrated book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which defined much of 20th-century analytic philosophy, is itself an ambitious and obscure attempt to put the incommunicable in its place. In his letter to a potential editor of the book, Wittgenstein wrote:
“My work consists of two parts: the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important one. My book draws limits to the sphere of the ethical from the inside as it were, and I am convinced that this is the ONLY rigorous way of drawing those limits. In short, I believe that where many others today are just gassing, I have managed in my book to put everything firmly into place by being silent about it.”
Wittgenstein, to get his book published, felt the need to verbally explain what he had left unexplained in the book. It’s common that all sorts of masters are made to vulgarize incommunicable aspects in word form—that to be heard and understood, they have to verbalize the meaning of their work. As examples, think of the verbal explanations that almost always accompany artwork in museums, or the way photos and illustrations in magazines are always explained in the caption. And think of the often awkward and uninformative analyses athletes are made to give of their performance post-competition.
In a TED talk that has been viewed over 40 million times, Sir Ken Robinson recounts a true story of a child whose means of expression did not resonate with the requirements of the school system. She was fidgety and inattentive at school, and her parents suspected she had a learning disability. They brought her to a doctor to get help. After talking to the parents and the child, the specialist told the parents: “Your child is not sick. She is a dancer. Take her to a dance school.” And she went on to become a soloist for the Royal Ballet.
Sir Robinson ties the incidence with an important message for school system reform: Recognize, cherish, and nourish different dispositions, talents, and ways in which children express themselves, rather than forcing them into one narrow, normative box. Similar claims can be distilled from philosophy: Celebrate the expressive power of non-verbal communication, whether it’s dance, coding, or intentional silence. Recognize it as the key to inclusive and truly rich conversation. That is the only way to grant a voice to the voiceless, children and adults alike.
Shortcomings in verbal communication are not always shortcomings of the speaker—they may be shortcomings of language as a means of expression. If we fail to look for alternative means of communication, it’s not just the voiceless that suffer an injustice: Listeners are robbed of the speaker’s hidden knowledge, too.