“All true good carries with it conditions which are contradictory and as a consequence is impossible. He who keeps his attention really fixed on this impossibility and acts will do what is good.” [1]

In response to the murder of George Floyd by police in the USA, cities around the world held anti-racist demonstrations calling on both citizens and states to acknowledge the continued proliferation of systemic racism in our societies. Over the weekend of June 6 and 7, Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester, England, was filled with cries of grief and demands for change. Incantations of ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’ and ‘I CAN’T BREATHE’ cut through a crowd mobilised by an act of gratuitous violence that came to represent the vicious legacy of centuries of white supremacism. In addition to the chants, there were written placards and an enormous volume of social media posts seeking to (i) diagnose the problem of contemporary racial injustices and (ii) articulate solutions to this problem.

Two refrains dominated the demonstrations: ‘WHITE SILENCE IS VIOLENCE’ and ‘SILENCE IS COMPLICITY’. The claim that these chants and placards articulated was that silence around the problems of racism amounted to complicity in racism: to be silent in the face of racist injustice perpetuates racist injustice. The demand, then, was for racially privileged people – i.e. white people – to speak up, show solidarity, and confront their own inevitable involvement in practices of structural racism.

And yet, the call to ‘speak up’ was not the only demand made, and social media were quick to petition their members to partake in media ‘blackouts’. The aim was that, with a show of solidarity through ‘online silence’, those voices that have been historically silenced would be given a forum, in which they could be heard.

For those who want to act justly and in the right way, these demands seem to represent an impossible bind. On the one hand, to be silent is to be complicit in the racist superstructure, whilst, on the other, an active silencing of oneself is required in order to foreground racial injustice. How can we make sense of these two seemingly contradictory demands if we are to act in the right way?

Simone Weil, the early-twentieth-century French activist, mystic, and philosopher puts silence at the centre of her concept of justice. In her famous essay ‘Human Personality’, Weil argues that what the afflicted require is not so much a positive allowance of freedom, but the silence of those who want to deliver justice (HP73).[2] Freedom of speech, she argues, is not particularly useful if that speech is then rendered mute by the ‘vocabulary of middle values’ with which bourgeois society typically converses (HP 86).  In response, Weil advocates a form of justice based on attentive silence (HP73).

Although her concept of attention is multi-faceted, Weil attempts to distil it in the following way: ‘Attention is an effort, the greatest of all efforts perhaps, but it is a negative effort.’ (WG71).[3] For her, attention is understood negatively as a kind of suspension, an absence, an active form of passivity that one can express through a practice of silence. Key to the practice of attention is the eschewing of any end goal that our personal interests might be aimed at. In attention, one’s effort is not aimed at anything other than being entirely open to the power of the object of attention. Unlike discursive models of thought that are always guided by a telos, in attention ‘[. . .] our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which is to penetrate it.’ (WG 72). For Weil, then, attentive silence is a model for justice because unlike rights-based forms of justice, an attentive form of justice doesn’t project onto its object an image of its own discursive models, models which themselves are complicit in the injustices one aims to address.

Weil’s concept of attentive justice is aligned with the demand that white and non-minority peoples act by silencing themselves. But is it also problematised by the claim that silence is a form of complicity in injustice?

Far from seeing this as logically incoherent and therefore dismissible, Weil would argue that the apparent contradictions visible in the demands for justice are a sign of their infallibility. Contradiction is central to Weil’s general philosophical methodology. In contrast to the rationalist philosophies that insist on the absolute intelligibility of the world and thus strive to explain away all contradictions, Weil argues that contradictions ‘[…] are the only realities: they are the criterion of the real’ (GG 98). When we are faced with a contradiction, we are confronted with that which is most real, and we should not attempt to explain it so much as be open to its generative power.

The model for Weil’s theory of contradiction is Christ’s crucifixion. Here, extreme affliction meets God’s goodness with neither denying the reality of the other. Instead, each reinforces and highlights the other. Transposing this argument onto the social realm, I think Weil would also maintain the power of contradictions to point to the real. When we come up against an impossible bind, we are confronted with a reality that stymies our habitual patterns of reasoning. Contradictions confront us with the limits of traditional models of thought and demand that we address the problem anew. And so, the apparent contradiction in the demand for both speech and silence doesn’t point to the fallibility of the demand, but to the fallibility of the way the demand is heard and understood.

Weil’s engagement with issues relating to race, racism, and the injurious effects of European colonialism are most explicitly elaborated in The Need for Roots. But the development of her related theories of justice, silent attention, and contradiction are productive for making sense of the seemingly impossible demands of those who fight for racial justice. For Weil, it is precisely in the contradictory demand for both silence and speech that the painful realities of racial injustice are once again revealed.



[1] Weil, S. 2002. Gravity and Grace. Translated by Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr. London, NY: Routledge. Hereafter abbreviated as GG.

[2] All references to Weil’s essay ‘Human Personality’ are from Weil, S. 2005. Simone Weil: An Anthology. ed. Siân Miles. New York: Penguin, and are abbreviated as HP followed by the page number of the above volume.

[3] All references to Weil’s collection of essays Waiting on God are from Weil, S. 1983. Waiting on God. Translated by Emma Craufurd. Glasgow: Collins Fount Paperbacks, and are abbreviated as WG followed by the page number of the above volume.