The Freedom to Remain Silent: The Right to make Qualified Contributions to the Public Sphere

Bidragets oversatte titel: Tavshedsfriheden: Retten til at ytre sig kvalificeret

Publikation: Ph.d. afhandling/ kandidat/ diplomDoktorafhandling


This book sets out to turn a centuries-old discussion about a particular aspect of democracy on its head. The emergence of the idea of popular sovereignty led, quite naturally, to the question of how best to ensure that the people govern in an appropriate manner. Since it is legitimate to argue that democracy is an essentially contested concept, it is also fair to say that consensus has never been reached on a definition of what is and is not appropriate. However, no matter where you stand on the issue, it is an open question how and to what extent the people make decisions that are, in some way or other, for the common good.

At any rate, it has been commonplace since the Enlightenment and the emergence of rationalism to believe that some form of freedom of expression is the path to an enlightened public sphere. The line of thought, which I elucidate in the book, has always been that the more voices involved in debating the pressing issues of the day, the better – because scrutiny and the pressure of competing points of view mean that the strongest ideas are likely to prevail.

While accepting that this is the case, I wish to supplement this line of thought by adding its opposite into the mix. Just as dialogue and information are indispensable ingredients in a functioning democracy, I want to show that silence is also a fundamental prerequisite. With this in mind, I suggest that we supplement thinking about freedom of expression with similar deliberations about freedom of silence.

Silence has played a less prominent role in thinking about democracy. When it has been addressed, it has usually been as something to be opposed. The role of journalism as the fourth estate is often seen as preventing the powers that be from silencing troublesome views, “digging up” information that has been withheld (i.e. silenced) and helping the voiceless to be heard. Silence can be, and often is, a means of oppression – at least for some sections of the population. This book seeks to show that silence can also play a positive role in developing a fruitful and democratic public sphere.

A project like this is, of course, somewhat paradoxical, since to articulate silence is, in a certain sense, to violate it. It is also quite overwhelming in scope, as silence takes myriad forms. However, my work to date has convinced me that the difficulty of the task is dwarfed by its importance. If we begin to analyse our public spheres through the lens of silence, it becomes clear that a one-sided focus on accommodating a diversity of views means that we overlook mechanisms or structures that are just as problematic and oppressive as actual censorship.

The book rests on twin pillars: first, an analytical one, on the basis of which I seek to highlight some of the ways in which silence structures public exchanges in ways we may not notice. In a sense, this is about reflecting on silence as an unavoidable condition. The second pillar is a more critical one, where I use the insights from the first pillar to demonstrate how a greater focus on the structures that enable silence can breathe new life into public communicative exchanges and stop them just treading water. This part of the book entails reflecting on how silence is not only a condition, but one that can be operationalised critically.

This book addresses a number of fundamental questions: how silence plays a productive role in the democratic public sphere; how this role tends to be something of which we are not conscious; and how, in order to avoid hegemonic and oppressive communicative structures, it is important to reflect on the existing structures of silence so that they may be subjected to explicit consideration and negotiation in communicative exchanges. To put it bluntly, it might be said that the democratic value of freedom of expression, -information and -media cannot simply be measured by the number of people able to make their voices heard. If everyone says the same thing, confirms each other’s opinions or prejudices, or does not bother to listen to what others have to say, then there is no real communicative exchange. If the freedoms mentioned above are to retain lasting democratic value, it is essential to allow for a degree of independence in public discourse – and this independence can prevail through active reflection on the underlying structures of silence.

Highlighting silence as a democratic focal point creates an opportunity to navigate more consciously through existing structures of silence. This, in turn, invites a more reflective approach to silence, which allows us to incorporate the structures of silence into public communication in a more systematic manner. This, in turn, gives the parties involved in communicative exchanges an opportunity to consider, on a more continuous basis, whether the existing structures of silence are appropriate.
Bidragets oversatte titelTavshedsfriheden: Retten til at ytre sig kvalificeret
StatusAfsendt - 12 okt. 2021


  • medier og medieteori