No Opinion: A lesson in silence from Cambodia and Kierkegaard’s lilies

Yesterday, Cambodia held a general election. It appears, as most commentators expected, Prime Minister Hun Sen will continue his 28 year rein. However, the opposition – Cambodia National Rescue Party – gained an additional 26 seats (55 in total). I have added little to my knowledge of Cambodian politics since high school classes on Indochina, at a time when Hun Sen was still in the early stages of his career. So I am not trying offer any analysis of these election results. My interest however is in a report that the Cambodian people are not too fond of opinion polls.

Unlike Australia, where opinion polls seem to be conducted on a daily basis and have the power to overthrow Prime Ministers, in the lead up to the Cambodian election there were only two polls. What interests me about these polls is not what was said, but in what was withheld. In the two polls 60% and 21% offered “no opinion”. I do not claim to know why this was the case, it could be due to a variety of factors: fear of expressing an opinion, distrust of the polling agency, or unfamiliarity with the polling process. However, I do think that the “no opinion” option is something alien yet instructive for Australians.

In a Newspoll survey from 1st July 2013 on Federal voting intentions and leaders’ rating only 2% of Australians polled refused to answer. Refusing to give an opinion goes against much of Australian and Western culture. We are all unique individuals. We have voices. We have desires. We have opinions. And they should be heard. Or in the sardonic grist of Harry Callahan, “opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one”. Blogs, facebook, twitter and the humble letters page all reflect the idea that we have opinions that should be heard.

Yet perhaps it is in voicing these opinions, specifically in allowing them to be quantified in opinion polls, that the quality and power of the opinion is eroded. In a society where the cacophony of voices is reduced to quantifiable data, then perhaps it is better to follow Bartleby and respond with – “I would prefer not to”. This strategy obviously has its risk, however perhaps it is time our culture valorized silence and inaction.

In examining the confession, Michel Foucault traces the way power induces speech and “spread its effects far and wide”. The imperative to speak occurs in private and public, in the most intimate relations and “in the most ordinary affairs of everyday life”. Speech, we are told, distinguishes us from the beasts. But speech also makes us a particular kind of beast. According to Foucault “Western man has become a confessing animal“. In response to the imperative to speak, silence and refusal can have a subversive power.

While agreeing that speech “distinguishes man above the beasts” (and the lilies), Søren Kierkegaard does not think this means that “to be able to keep silent is no art”. Kierkegaard invites us to use “the lilies and the birds as teachers” of the art of silence. It is an advantage to be able to resist the temptation to speak and “it is a great art to be able to keep silent”. Perhaps in learning from the lilies and following Bartleby, we can begin to value silence and recognize its political force.

Silence and refusal to answer is not without risk or effort. Bartleby starved. And Kierkegaard notes that it is an art to restrain oneself from speaking, an art that requires practice. However, if this art was more widely practiced, then a refusal to participate in opinion polls could serve to limit their eroding effect on democracy and strengthen speech when it really matters.


Foucault, The Will to Knowledge, Penguin: 1998, p 59.

Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses and The Lilies of the Field and the Birds of the Air, and Three Discourses at the Communion on Fridays. trans. by Walter Lowrie, D.D. Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press, 1974.

Kierkegaard and Sickness

The physician knows that just as there can be merely imagined illness, so too is there merely imagined health. For the latter, therefore, he takes the first measures that will bring the illness to view.
Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death (53)

In SUD Kierkegaard outlines various sicknesses or states of despair that affect the spirit. According to Kierkegaard no one is free from despair, not even one. Yet there are different kinds of despair. The most horrific form that despair takes is that which is hidden, ‘so concealed in a person that he himself is not aware of it!’ (57) This person lives their life unaware of their ‘spiritual’ state and looks on their existence as a series of particular moments or actions, but not with a ‘conception of an infinite consistency in themselves.’ (140) That is they have no understanding of their spiritless existence of their being but only consider the external. So they live with either ‘child-like naivety, or with empty mindedness’ (140) weighing up ‘particular good deeds’ against ‘particular sins’. For this person the scales will always tip toward the former and they will then be at ease. But our sins of action are to the state of our spiritual health what the puffs of smoke coming from a locomotive are to the engine.

In SUD and The Concept of Anxiety Kierkegaard (or Anti-Climacus and Haufniensis) is trying to remind his apathetic and nominally Christian contemporaries of their sinfulness so that they are motivated to be saved. If you don’t think you sin then you won’t think you need to be saved. Kierkegaard as physician is trying to tell the sick man who claims to be healthy that he is in fact ill and in need of attention.