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Open for Debate

“That’s not what I didn’t say”. Some thoughts on silence and deniability

25 July 2022

In June 2020, there was a long moment of silence, when Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau was asked a question about his views on US president Donald Trump’s reaction to Black Lives Matter protesters in a press conference: “You’ve been reluctant to comment on the words and actions of the US president”, the journalist asked, “but we do have Donald Trump now calling for military action against protesters, we saw protesters tear gassed yesterday to make way for a presidential photo-op. I’d like to ask you what you think about that. And if you don’t want to comment, what message do you think you’re sending?” As a response, Trudeau remains silent for 21 seconds. He then goes on, giving a fairly general answer, not commenting explicitly, and directing the discussion to the Canadian context.

There is much to say about this exchange and the context it took place in. But for now let’s think about this: Since Trudeau did end up giving at least some kind of answer, it is interesting that a lot of the media attention following this encounter focussed on the silence, the 21 seconds of saying nothing: What can we take from this silence? Should we take something from it? Was it carefully planned and with a particular purpose?

Clearly, in this case, people had different ideas about what that particular silence could mean. But one thing that we might be able to agree upon is that it meant and communicated something. So, in the following, I want to use this example to think about how such silences tie in with certain features of political discourse. More specifically, I want to think about how these kinds of silences relate to what is often called “plausible deniability”.

First, let me say a little bit about what kind of silence I have in mind here. When I’m talking about conversational silences, I understand them as instances where a.) somebody doesn’t say anything explicitly, i.e., remains literally silent[1], and b.) remains silent in order to bring something across. Their silence functions as an active conversational contribution. Conversational silences don’t just come up in political “high-stakes” examples but are part of our everyday conversations. E.g., when a friend I had an argument with recently asks “Are you still upset?”, and I remain silent as a response, we might want to say that this silence communicates something as well.

Just like other contributions, silences can be part of a conversational flow. Sometimes, what they communicate might be unambiguous, and everybody understands it right away. E.g., in the example where I remain silent to my friend’s question, the silent message might be quite clear. While it does depend a bit on context, what people know about each other, and what happened before the exchange and so forth, it’s likely that silence in response to this question will mean something like “Yes, I’m still mad at you.” On the other hand, if there have already been several rounds of apologies that have been explicitly accepted, the silence might communicate “Please stop talking about it, it’s already fine.” The point is: It can be clear what a particular instance of remaining silent is supposed to communicate. But other times, this might be a bit trickier to reliably find out. After all, there is nothing explicit that we can pin somebody down on. And I think that it is precisely this feature that can make conversational silences particularly appealing in certain political contexts – specifically when people might have an interest in maintaining plausible deniability.

If we relate the concept of plausible deniability to conversational exchanges, usually it means that somebody can tell a (somewhat) plausible story about what they meant with a particular statement or utterance, should it be misunderstood or its meaning be called into question. For example, if somebody gets stopped for speeding, and threatened with having their licence revoked, they might say “is there any other way we could settle this?”, possibly implying a bribe – but a  deniable one. The implications of this question could (maybe) be explained away by insisting that this was merely an inquiry about whether a warning, or a fine, would be an alternative. Of course, one might claim to have plausible deniability, and pretend that the story they can tell is very plausible, while it actually seems to be a bit of a stretch. This, however, doesn’t mean that people won’t get away with it. Especially if somebody is very insistent about their story, chances are that an audience will give up at some point, and stop insisting that this is surely not what they could have meant. But, what is common in cases of plausible deniability, is that the conversational contribution called into question is already a bit vague or indirect. This can enable the denial.

So, back to silence. If statements that allow for plausible deniability are often somewhat implicit and vague, it seems that silence is an especially attractive kind of contribution to be used in this way. Even though I’d say that conversational silence can, sometimes, be very unambiguous, often it is a bit difficult to pin down – especially if it comes up in moments of possible contention. And the deniability features of silence are useful here because they leave room for interpretational leeway, allow responses to potential criticism and can help people avoid accountability. That is, silence might be used in an exchange in such a way that avoids explicit commitment, but yet leaves room for interpretation of what the silence could communicate. The example with Trudeau lends itself well for exploring this – not because I know for sure that this is what happened here, but because his silence has the potential to be used in deniable ways.

So, somebody very charitably minded might interpret Trudeau’s 21 seconds of silence like this: He is trying to communicate something like “I think what Trump is doing is awful.” Some news reports mentioned that Trudeau’s criticism of Trump in the past has led the US president to cut off important trade relationships, and speculate that Trudeau doesn’t want to risk something like this again (e.g. see here). Not saying explicitly what he is thinking about Trump’s actions could be a way of maintaining deniability: if it comes to it, he could claim “I never said anything.” But of course, there are different interpretations available. Despite what he says after the silence, Trudeau might be taken to communicate something like “I will not get involved in this discussion” or even “I agree with what Trump is doing”. And of course, there are plenty of criticisms to be raised about either one of these messages. In times of injustice, we need to make our rejection of it explicit, especially from a position of privilege. Remaining neutral in such circumstances is precisely part of the problem. But the deniability features of silence might also enable a response in this case: Imagine somebody of influence was to challenge Trudeau on why he isn’t speaking out against Trump. And imagine he is invested in this person thinking he is against Trump’s practices. What his silence allows now is the claim that “With my silence I wanted to make it very clear that I disagree” – even if he wanted to communicate agreement with, or neutrality towards Trump’s practices at first. But again, on the other hand, if in a different situation somebody was to say to him “You cannot criticise the president of the United States!”, he could easily claim “But I didn’t say anything of the sort.”

In both of these cases, the possibility for a (more or less) plausible denial might be quite calculated and planned. Trudeau might have expected that such a question could come, and thought that “meaningful” silence might allow various ways of interpretation and responses that could get him a way out of a difficult situation or discussion. But maybe the silence wasn’t calculated at all. Maybe Trudeau really just did not know what to say: He was simply stumped by the question. But even then, the deniability features of silence can come in useful. Because even in this case, Trudeau could claim that his silence was supposed to mean this or that – depending on what conversational partner he is trying to please.

Similar things can happen in other cases: it doesn’t need to be such a high-stakes situation. The point is – if deniability is something desirable in a politically charged context, silence can sometimes serve this purpose and help avoid conversational liability or accountability about the things we do, or don’t, say. Silences that are used in this way can be a political tool that help people to avoid being held to a specific message that could be “politically risky”. The more they actually put out there, the more they say, the more can be challenged. And this is avoided in at least some cases of conversational silences.

So, a final question: How could we challenge the denial of a silent message? This means: If a person’s denial doesn’t convince us, that is, it seems very implausible we don’t want to go ahead and accept it, how could we react to challenge the interpretation they put forward? Responding to denials can be quite tricky, even when there is an explicit statement. If we challenge what somebody communicated with their silence, and they deny the message we understood, the fact that the message was silent gives them even more of a chance to say “That’s not what I said.” Or rather “That’s not what I didn’t say.”

However, we might point the following: Sometimes, it simply doesn’t matter what the intention of their silent message was, especially if it ended communicating something harmful, like agreement with the injustice, or indifference to it. If somebody is swearing at a gay couple, or shouting racist abuse at people, a bystanders’ dismissive silence will simply not do it (even if dismissive silence can sometimes do interesting work in other contexts). When people remain silent in an immediate context of injustice where they should have spoken up or been explicit in their rejection, we could say that even if it were true that the harmful thing wasn’t their intention – they didn’t do enough to make their commitments clear. Or, we just keep insisting: “Tell me exactly how I should have come to this conclusion from your silence”, we might say.

Both of these things could lead to long discussions, however, and there is a chance that, if somebody just sticks with their denial, at some point people will drop it, even if they are not convinced.

Conversational silences, of course, aren’t always deceitful or problematic. They can be positive, even, e.g. when we remain silent to allow others to speak (“it’s your turn, you should be heard”). Silences are common elements in our conversations, and, just like other conversational elements, they have the potential to be sneaky and misleading. And, as I’ve discussed here, I think that using silences to maintain plausible deniability is just one way in which this can happen.



[1] It’s important to qualify that using sign language does not count as a form of conversational silence here. Sign language is a form of speech, even if the person signing does not say any words “out loud”.

Picture: Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash