Tim resumes the discussion with Stephanie Bennett (Ph.D.) on her new book, Silence, Civility, and Sanity: Hope for Humanity in a Digital Age. They take a deeper look at silence as a set of practices for counteracting unhealthy and uncivil discourse. Dr. Bennett unpacks two types of silence — contemplative silence and ontological silence — to help us reclaim civil communication and healthy public conversation. They round out the conversation discussing Dr. Bennett’s trilogy of novels, Within the Walls, where she employs fiction to explore the future of digital media and relational sustainability. This is part 2 of a 2-part discussion with Dr. Stephanie Bennett on silence and civility.
You can purchase a copy of Dr. Bennett’s book, Silence, Civility, and Sanity: Hope for Humanity in a Digital Age, and use code LXFANDF30 for 30% off the cover price at Lexington Books.
Stephanie Bennett: Using Fred Rogers, as an example here, he used language and conversation with children to creatively build a sense of safety, and a sense of home, and a sense of belonging. And his approach to his media, children's television was very much rooted in loving thy self, like love by neighbor. The second commandment love by neighbor as thy self. How do we love our neighbor as ourselves if we don't know ourselves?
Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction Podcast. My name is Tim Muehlhoff. I'm a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California. I'm also the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project. You can learn about us by going to winsomeconviction.com and take a look at all the resources we've archived podcast. We just hit our 50th episode and we are having a conversation right now with Dr. Stephanie Bennett, who has been studying media, the effects of media with her students. She teaches a class on civility and the common good. And in the previous episode, we talked about some of the fallouts.
I loved Dr. Bennett's balanced approach to technology. There's a lot of good, but we have to be reflective on what some of the fallout would be. And so we spent the last podcast talking about the fallout, but what I love about her book, Silence, Civility, and Sanity. Hope for Humanity in a Digital Age is that she gives us hope and antidotes. Now, this hope is going to be hard to do. I have found this book to be deeply challenging, but one that I think we just have to wait into. So I want to re-welcome Dr. Stephanie Bennett. Stephanie, thank you for joining us again.
Stephanie Bennett: Hi, Tim. Thanks for having me. I'm glad to be here.
Tim Muehlhoff: And how's it feels to reach the pinnacle of your career by being on the Winsome Conviction Podcast? How does that...
Stephanie Bennett: I love it. I'm delighted to be here, and I'm honored.
Tim Muehlhoff: Thank you. We are going to use that and are advertising from here till to eternity.
Stephanie Bennett: I've heard of your work. I've heard of you. I know of your work and I'm there. Again. I'm honored.
Tim Muehlhoff: Okay. So before we get to the antidote, let's get a little pushback.
Stephanie Bennett: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: I could imagine some of our listeners saying, wait, listen, see, this is what kills me about Christian professors is we are in a culture war. We're in a war where real cultural ground is being lost. And now we have a book that says, not only are we to be civil, but that we're to practice silence, and we need more. Now is not the time to do any of this. The Winsome Conviction Project, are you kidding me? We don't need to be Winsome. This is a culture war, and we need to speak loud, hard, and we need to tell people what God's perspective is. And if they get offended, I'm sorry, that's just part of the game. So what would be your response to people saying, "My goodness, we don't need winsome silence. We need to be in the culture war." Might be a little pushback against their pushback.
Stephanie Bennett: Sure, sure, sure. I get it. I get it. I know it's counterintuitive. And especially for communication researchers and speech teachers, right. It's completely counterintuitive, but a couple things here, Tim. Number one, I am definitely not saying that we need to be silent, and that silence is the panacea for all these problems and that we just need to shut our mouth and learn to just defer and differ. I am not saying that I teach students for almost 20 years. Trying to find their voice. And I am not saying that. So I don't want anyone to think that I'm saying that in the book, but because this speech is so speech is so powerful because it's such a gift from God. We tend to tamp down on silence and forget about it. That it's a part of speech. There's a dialectical relationship of speech with silence. There's a push and pull, Max Picard. The great philosopher of the 20th century said, "Speech rises from the bed of silence." Speech has got to come from somewhere, right?
So again, I know it's counterintuitive mean, especially when we're thinking of marginalized groups. I mean, think about women in silence. For instance, a woman who's been freed from the suppression of her voice, hardly desired to turn back and discuss the way her voice was suppressed. Why? Well, the memories are painful. There's too much. And as well as there's too much to say, it's just much easier to simply move forward and try to forget the days of oppression and suppression, the hours, the years of having no place at the table, the years of being marginalized. And so why do we want to think about silence?
But as I mentioned to you in our last session, the words of our mouth are our media. They are our primitive media are primal media. We shape reality and co-create culture through our speech. We function in ways that ants and parakeets, don't. Speech is a part of our DNA. Although we don't come out of our mama's womb speaking before long, we make sense of all the words flying around us because we have our speech community there and we pick up language. We humans pick up languages naturally as the duck picks up swimming. I like to think of speech as speaking as supernaturally, natural, but therefore suppressing ones, voice does not make sense, but let's look at this really, Tim simply speaking up louder or more eloquently. It's not working. It's just not going to work. We need something more than the best argument.
We do need apologetics. We do need good arguments, but we need something more. And so to fully more fully answer your question, I'd say that, first of all, understanding that we are living in what Deborah Tannen and others have called this argument culture is just a first step. But then realizing that our words as important as they are, they're not the be all end all of the matter. We have to understand that, that's key. Silence can step in and when in a conversation and when we use it, we can use it dialectically. We can employ silence as part of speech and not just rely on or try to rely on one pole of this dialectic that we get nowhere. Sometimes then often our words just make things worse. Think of even marital arguments sometimes, right? I mean, you get all tangled up in an argument that you're just trying to untangle and make it work, but sometimes a breath, a moment of silence, five beats of reflection. No, we can get just as easily tied up in the belligerent, like culture war as the next person.
And we need to find a way to offer something different. I just want to say one more thing about this. I love Paul's letter to the Philippians and I love the way in the New King James, Paul is telling them, "Let your gentleness be made, known to all the Lord is at hand, be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with Thanksgiving, let your request be made known to God and the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus." I didn't mean to spew that whole scripture there, but I love that first part, especially that says, "Let your gentleness be known, being made, known to all." Well, do we want to follow what the scripture says and let the discipline of silence help teach us that? Or do we want to just fall into the belligerent culture waring that the world is so comfortable with? I don't know. I just think language is so important and our demeanor and our attitude that we bring.
Tim Muehlhoff: So some of our listeners might be thinking, okay, silence, fine, a whole book on it, like a whole book on not talking. And what I love is that you take the concept of silence and you really make it a rich complex issue in a good way, because if just take a look at your table of contents, you say why silence, which I thought was a great chapter, contemplative silence, attentive silence, which was worth the price of the book by the way, chapter three, amazing ontological silence, phantom silence, relational silence. That was unbelievable chapter. Ethical silence. And then I love that you wrap it up by saying, "Okay, there are forms of unhealthy silence."
And I work teaching self defense at domestic violence shelters here in Orange County. And I've seen this unhealthy silence before in action. So we don't have time unfortunately, to go through all of these. So I'm going to ask you a really impossible question. I'm going to say you are speaking at a conference and you set up the need for silence, but now you only have time to tackle one of these, maybe two at a conference. What would you do? Which ones would you go to with limited time?
Stephanie Bennett: That is a challenging question, my friend. I think I'll have to be self-focused here and go to contemplative silence. I love contemplative silence. It's a practice I have been at since 1990. And it's the very reason why I was interested in researching silence. I was interested in practicing contemplative silence before I even did my master's degree. And for me, it's been the most transformative. So I think I love to speak about that the most when practice regularly contemplative silence, assuages that kind of, what should we call it? It's like a machine-like rhythm really of contemporary culture. And it helps us make sense of what is so often just like random senseless mundane things. And I don't know, I think it's what Pascal was getting at. When he said all of humanities problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
Those kinds of statements you say, "Wow, they're kind of large in general. Is that really true?" I think so. I think so. And it goes back to what you said before. Just five minutes with your students. Following along with your students practice of the media fast can kind of drive you insane, can drive you crazy. It's like, oh, what starts to happen? The inner voice, the chatter, the inner dialogue starts happening and it's not always good. And sometimes it's just a long list of everything that's not done and has to get done. And so I think contemplative silence is what I would choose many people for many years, different people groups, religious and not religious practice, contemplative silence. I practiced contemplative silence in as prayer contemplative silence is it's not a substitute for other prayer, but it is different than vocal prayer. The prayer of the lips, where we petition God, we praise God for who he is.
And it's also different than meditative prayer, where the lips are quiet, but the mind is active, reflecting on scripture. Those are important types of prayer, but contemplative prayer is the prayer of the heart. I wrote a chapter for one of Robert Woods's books on Jean Giono from the 17th century. She practiced the prayer of the heart, this French woman. And it's a kind of prayer that reaches towards the Lord without words and without reflection, it just reaches towards his presence. And in my experience, it just teaches us more, what it means to simply be with the Lord. It's really closer to communion than it is anything else. And so that's why I would choose contemplative silence. I mean, the runner up is ontological silence, but I don't know how much time do we have.
Tim Muehlhoff: Let me just mention one thing really quick. So when you said you wrote that chapter about that woman who practiced that, are you speaking about words and witnesses?
Stephanie Bennett: Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. So listeners, I have to draw attention to this are good friend. Robert Woods wrote a book called. Well, he edited a book Words and Witnesses, Communication Studies in Christian Thought from Athanasius to Desmond Tutu. And it is rich book from different communication scholars, picking different individuals that have informed our view of communication or how communication theory can help us understand these individuals. So please check that out. I recommend that not recommended. I sign it in my classes and students always come away very encouraged. Can you break down very quickly? I think ontological would be the one that maybe some listeners would be like, "Okay, I think I kind of get contemplative, but ontological. What does ontological mean?"
Stephanie Bennett: Well, I left off with saying that the contemplative prayer teaches us over time, what it means to be with the Lord in closer communion and how it teaches us of course, is as different as we are individuals. However, the Lord would deal with us. But what it does is it pulls us away from doing more towards being towards what it means to just be like, who am I and learning that we're his child. And that moves from a kind of intellectual understanding of, oh, yes, I'm God's child. He made me to his daughter, that's my identity. I'm a child of God. My life is found in him. My life is found in Christ. It's all about being this, if you will. I know. I just created that word. It's all about being. And I used to say years ago, it's about human being instead of human doing.
But then I started noticing that other people started using that too. And so I laid off that, but I do think sometimes we consider ourselves we're more human doings than we are human beings. And so that kind of pulls us into an ontological discussion. Doesn't it?
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.
Stephanie Bennett: What does it mean to be? In the book I talk a little bit about, I forget which chapter it was, maybe it was the ontological chapter about Fred Rogers.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes.
Stephanie Bennett: And how he uses. He used Mr. Rogers neighborhood. He used pregnant pauses and deep listening, eye contact and non-verbals to model what is necessary for a person to understand their personhood. So we need to gain some sense of our personhood from our relation with others. And I hope I'm not making this too complex and convoluted. I don't mean to, but what I mean to say is that using Fred Rogers, as an example here, he used language and conversation with children to creatively build a sense of safety and a sense of home and a sense of belonging.
And self-esteem among as young viewers, one that many have said help shape the very sense of their being in the world. And so more than marketing trends and passing commercial fads, his approach to his media children's television was very much rooted in loving thy self, like love by neighbor. The second commandment love by neighbor as thyself. How do we love our neighbor as ourselves? If we don't know ourselves, if we can't love ourselves, if we hate ourselves, if our inner dialogue is all about self-recrimination and criticism. So these things work together. I think the language we use, we're really talking about philosophy here, but it's not directly a spouse, but Fred Rogers philosophy seemed to be very much informed by Heidegger who famously said, "Language is the dwelling place of being in its housing. Man is home." So you find your home. I find my home in the language of being the language God gives us to understand who we are.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. I love the identity part because now we're back at the pre-conversation.
Stephanie Bennett: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: We're at the point where, okay, what is my identity in Christ? And I'm a child of the king. I'm an ambassador for Jesus and blessed are the peacemakers. They should be called the sons of God. And so knowing that that's my identity and yes, there's the prophetic part of all of this and that's the number one pushback. We tend to get it through Winsome Conviction Project is, well, what about the prophetic nature of Jesus turning over tables and things like that. And we don't deny that. And we think that's part of our identity, but when you walk into a room secured in your identity and the fact that I'm called to love the people in this room, not tolerate them, but love them. That's the kind of messaging that goes out. This is what Goldman's talking about emotional contagion. This stuff bleeds into a room if this is truly who we are. So I love the fact that you mention, this is part of our DNA. You mentioned in that chapter, the desert fathers, Thomas Merton, Quakers, and Jesus going off to silent places. So I love you're calling us to the power of words, but there's going to have to be some preparatory identity work before we get into some of these hard conversations.
Stephanie Bennett: Yes. 100%. I'm with you on that. And I want to also call attention to the famous Bonhoeffer quote, "Let him who cannot be alone, be aware of community." Do you know that quote from Life Together? He says, "Let him, who is not in community beware of being alone. Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude, plunges into the void of words and feelings and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship parishes in the abyss of vanity self-infatuation despair." Yeah. Now I did not memorize that. I was just reading that there for you just to let you know, truth of advertising,
Tim Muehlhoff: But let's turn the listeners to that book that, I mean, Life Together by Bonhoeffer is one of these gems that you like highlight every page.
Stephanie Bennett: Absolutely.
Tim Muehlhoff: I just would encourage our listeners check that book. And it's not a very long book.
Stephanie Bennett: It's a nice little paperback. We use it in our ethics class when I teach communication ethics. And he, it's a powerful statement and see to your point about speech and silence and the prophetic. Well, who's saying anything about letting go of the prophetic. What I find very interesting is someone who functions in the prophetic, go ahead, function in the prophetic, but does that mean 24/7? You function in the prophetic. My husband's a professional drummer. He is an excellent drummer, but is he going to drum 24/7 in our household? I hope not. And I love his drumming. So we need both. And when people want to disclaim silence because the gift of speech is so powerful and because truth needs to be told. I don't think that's a fair argument.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's well said. I want to mention one James K.A. Smith quote, and then let's jump into your interesting venture into fiction. I thought was very interesting. So James K.A. Smith, who, by the way is another, we could say another author who you read one of his books and you just have to sit and just think about, I read Augustine On the Road.
Stephanie Bennett: Oh, yes. I love that. On the Road with Augustine. Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Come on. That's amazing. Yeah. He so good at turn of a phrase asking really powerful questions, but here's one of his quotes that you mentioned in your book, "The pathology that possesses at this cultural moment is a failure of imagination. Specifically, the failure to imagine the other as neighbor." I love that of saying I have a responsibility to you because we are neighbors. And what does that entail? I can't ignore you. I can't force you out of the community. I don't want to silence you. So we have to get along with each other because we are in fact neighbors and he's not talking about proximity, but more of an attitude of I'm here as a good neighbor.
Stephanie Bennett: Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: And what does a good neighbor do in hard times, even among when we have disagreements over politics or race? Yeah. So I thought that quote was awesome. And again, so much of this, even this podcast is what is your heart attitude?
Stephanie Bennett: Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: Before the conversation even starts.
Stephanie Bennett: Yes, absolutely.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.
Stephanie Bennett: So much. And to your point about the neighbor, imagine each other as neighbor, the James K.A. Smith quote. That's why I even brought up Fred Rogers in that little part of my book. Because he really was focused on being a neighbor. And what does that mean? I think everything would change if we started imagining the other as our neighbor and well, let me also say this loving one's neighbor does not cure everything in the neighborhood. Some neighbors might never stop pushing you away or making it difficult life in the neighborhood. But that doesn't mean we stop trying to love and love our neighbor. Part of the, I think the pushback there can come from feeling like there's nothing in common with our neighbor.
And yet, if we just think about it a little bit, like God, didn't just make Christians in his image. He made all of us in his image. And now that image in all of us broke and is broken and we have the Lord Jesus who has come and restored that. But we are all originally made in the image of God in the Imago Day. But I do think sometimes we don't realize that that neighbor who is an atheist or just doesn't care about God, they are made in God's image. And we have that in common with them. We have our humanness in common with them.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. Amen. Well, okay. Let's wrap this up by going into your foray into fiction. So in the last book I did, I mentioned this interesting fact about Sartre that Sartre had written being and nothingness, 700 pages and highly acclaimed, but it became fairly evident that people weren't reading it, the common Parisians weren't reading it. And so his live-in lover said, "Write a one act play, get it in there." And so now no exit is standard reading in high school classrooms, and it's been turned into a Broadway play.
So I found it fascinating that here's the great Sartre and he sits down and you can read no exit. You can do it in an afternoon easily. And that shook everybody. And it basically was being a nothingness within a one act play. So in no way, am I suggesting Silence, Civility, and Sanity is being a nothingness and that nobody's going to read it. People need to read that book, but I find it fascinating from a communication perspective that you would choose to write this trilogy with some of the same themes that are found in your book, Silence, Civility, and Sanity. So why that decision to go that route?
Stephanie Bennett: Thanks. Tim, thanks for asking that question because it did take me six years to write that all three of those books. There's nothing like a story. I mean, we humans have that unique ability to narrate our lives that like Walt Fisher says we're homo narrans. Humans are storytellers. Dr. Michael Graves is one of my greatest professors and his dissertation was chaired by Walt Fisher. I remember him teaching us about Fisher.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, gosh.
Stephanie Bennett: Humans are storytellers.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.
Stephanie Bennett: Stories move us. They touch us. They help us take notice of what's happening in our world in a way that frankly statistics and formulas do not. And so even though I didn't see myself as the next great novelist, I had so much research inside of me that it, that prophetic side just started coming out and I couldn't tamp it down. I wanted to do a screenplay and see a television series, or a movie come out of this, but I have no talent in that area.
I don't know people who are screenwriters. I didn't sense urgency to do that. So I thought, well, let me just write. I came out of a 20-year career of writing for magazines and newspapers and such. I love to write. So let me see if I can write a story about this kind of fictionalize, what would happen 60 years from now. And I had to start the thing over three different times over the course of three years. Because every time I came up with an idea, by the time I picked the book up again to finish it, all of a sudden, technology had it and it was there. And I'm going to give you an example. I remember thinking, I think it was around 2007 or so thinking what a world in 2071 might be so embedded. We might be so embedded with technology that the technologies are wireless and they're inside of our brain.
And gosh, that would be terrible. I was thinking that would be terrible. I hate to happen. And people wouldn't even have to talk to each other anymore. And then what would happen with community and then what would happen with church life? And I started thinking that way and I thought, gosh, I'm going to make the main character, just this vice president of a company that makes virtual vacations because no one travels anymore because there's some kind of big devastation or pandemic that happens in the 2030s and the government kind of swoops in and makes everyone isolate and be socially isolated. I'm thinking this way, I'm going to name this company, this fictional comp company Expedia.
Well, then I put it down over the summer and in the fall, all of a sudden, I start reading in wired magazine that there's a new company called expedia.com. And I'm freaking out. I figured to call it Expedia because of the root, the etymology of pedia the foot, we're just walking now. We're not. So I had to start this over three times to make sure that the technology didn't catch up. And I wrote it because I had to write it. I didn't want to write a novel. I didn't want to write three novels. I really didn't. But it was the kind of thing where it had to come out.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, that's so great. And I love that medium. Are you're familiar with Netflix's Black Mirror?
Stephanie Bennett: Black Mirror. Yes, I am.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, my goodness. So in my classes, I will play. Instead of lecturing, I will play one of them. One of them is called Nosedive where a woman, you constantly give each other stars of your interactions. And if you get to a 4.5, if you dip below a four point, then you can only rent certain cars. You can only stay at certain hotels. So you play that episode. It is like electric like people.
Stephanie Bennett: My friend, I have played it. And I know exactly what you're talking about. I know how it ends. I'm seeing it in my mind's eye right now. It's a terrible, it's a dystopic thing.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yup. Utterly fascinating. And so the medium draws people in and I teach a rhetoric class and we do the rhetoric of sitcoms, the rhetoric of humor, the rhetoric. And we need to understand that people are drawn into the narrative in ways that no lecture can drum up that kind of enthusiasm. So I love the fact that you went this route and spent six years to introduce this to... How can people get that book? What's the best way of that trilogy?
Stephanie Bennett: Okay. Well, it was published by Wildflower Press, which is online available Barnes and Noble. It's available Amazon, it's available Kindle and on soft cover. I think from time to time, it's like $5 now, each of them. One day, one day, people, some people who have read it have been asking me for a sequel. And so I've kind of got that stirring now that I've got the Silence book done, but we'll see.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, listen, and we hope that you do that. And again, thank you for Silence, Civility, and Sanity, Hope for Humanity in a Digital Age, it is so worth to read, roll up your sleeves when you do it, you're going to be challenged. So thank you for all the hard work that went into that and this trilogy. And thank you for caring about the things, the Winsome Conviction Project cares about being a model to us of how to shape a class and to challenge students and challenge ourselves. So thank you so much for being on this podcast.
Stephanie Bennett: Thank you so much, Tim. It's really been a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Tim Muehlhoff: If you want more information about the Winsome Conviction Podcast, you can go to our website, winsomeconviction.com. And not only listen to this podcast, but podcast that we've done with Arthur Brooks, David French, Russell Moore, Deon Hill, please check out these important thinkers. Thank you for joining in this important conversation about stability, kindness, perspective taking, and as Dr. Bennett would remind us silence.