I’m writing a book on silence, and the way in which those who are silent are both celebrated and reviled in our culture. One of the most important studies about the social effects of silence is Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s The Spiral of Silence1. In this book she examines the way in which majoritarian viewpoints work to eliminate the public expression of dissent, until it is even impossible to have private articulations of contrary view-points. She begins her book with a parable, based upon her viewing of a ballet, in Chicago, in the spring of 1980:
Somewhere, possibly in Italy, there is a small town with honest citizens and a count and a countess of local lineage. Outside of the town, in a castle on a hill, lives a strange man who has the oddest ideas. He never ceases to give people cause for amazement; perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that they are partly amazed and partly annoyed by him, while at all times keeping their distance.
One Sunday this man appears in town leading a unicorn by a chain. People can only shake their heads about him. A little later, however, the count and countess are also seen in town leading a unicorn by a chain. This is the signal for everyone in town to get a unicorn.
Another Sunday, the strange man in the castle suddenly appears with a gorgon. People ask him what has become of the unicorn. The man tells them he was tired of the unicorn and decided to pepper and grill him. Everyone is shocked. But when the count and the countess also appear with a gorgon, shocked surprise turns to envy, and all at once gorgons are the rage.
On the third Sunday, the man in the castle turns up with a manticore and tells the people the gorgon was slaughtered. At first the townsfolk are scandalized. But then everything follows the usual course: the count and the countess secretly dispose of their gorgon, the townsfolk follow suit, and all at once the manticore is in vogue.
Time passes; the strange man in the castle is not seen anymore. People are sure the manticore has been slaughtered too. The townspeople form a committee to put an end to these crimes and march on the castle. They enter the castle, but are brought up short by what they see. They find the strange man dying in the company of his three animals—the unicorn, the gorgon, and the manticore. The unicorn represents the dreams of his youth, the gorgon his middle age, and the manticore his old age.
The townspeople discarded his ideas as quickly as they had taken them up; they were just passing whims….We all take the poet’s side. …The poet represents our image of man as strong, independent, imaginative. And we are all familiar with the count and the countess—superficial trend-setters who have no ideas of their own but want to be leaders wherever they go. Those we despise most, however, are the people who go along with the crowd, first making fun of a person because he is different from them but then absorbing any new fashion and finally giving themselves the air of moral authority.
This is one point of view, and it is the way strange people from the castle, loners, artists, and scholars have always felt.2
Noelle-Neumann doesn’t feel that it necessarily the only point of view…
As long as we privilege the heroic loner, the outsider, the rebel, and at the same time, refuse to recognize our need to conform, and to make others conform, we will only see the point of view of strange people from the castle. Don’t the count, the countess, and the townspeople deserve to have their story listened to as well?