Voice is integral to many acts of protest.
Why? First, voice, in the low-tech sense, is a readily available public alert system. If one is unable to appear on broadcast media, or to start a blog or distribute printed material for fear of political reprisal, one can usually still walk out into the street and scream.
Second, the use of the voice has acute affective power for listeners. It carries not only explicit meaning but also a great deal of emotional content. If listeners feel the depth of a speaker’s resolve, they may be moved by it.
Third, the use of the voice in unison, as with singing or chanting, produces a sense of political singularity that can serve to inspire fellow protesters, and to recruit others.
It is because of these characteristics that we so often experience protest as a series of shouts disrupting an otherwise repetitive sonic field – a street, a campaign speech, a public hearing.
As a caveat, things are rarely so straightforward. Precisely because of its power, voice is always policed. In the United States, the First Amendment includes an honesty clause: you can shout as loudly as you want about anything, except as it might be dishonest or dangerous. (i.e. a nonexistent fire in a crowded theater). Furthermore, locally, you need a permit to use your voice above a certain volume. I cannot go out on the street leading 10,000 people down Broadway in a chant, nor hook up loudspeakers through which to yell, without getting permission, which can of course be denied. The question of who gets permission to shout above a certain threshold introduces, obviously, inequalities based on political influence.
If we listen more closely, we will realize that there are even subtler ideological impediments to the use of the voice in protest – local norms about the propriety of public discussion of politics, the receptivity of listeners, both hard and soft discouragements of public gatherings, and even the specific shape and arrangement of built spaces can police the voice as an instrument of protest.
A June exchange on the Sound Studies listserv reminded me of this fascinating play between the voice in protest and the instruments that work to restrict it. Dr. D.W. posted a June 20 article from the Los Angeles Times about the impromptu rooftop shouting sessions that occurred nightly after the divisive and disputed reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:
DISPATCH FROM TEHRAN
Iran rooftop chorus swells in the night
Calls of ‘God is great!’ from losing opposition presidential candidate
Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s backers ricochet around a city block despite
warnings against further protest.
By Borzou Daragahi
June 20, 2009
Los Angeles Times
It starts with two young female voices, quietly at first, almost
gently piercing the quiet of the night.
“Allahu akbar!” they cry out a few minutes after 10 p.m. “God is
Then another voice joins in from the other side of the block. This one
belongs to an older woman. “God is great!” she responds in a rasp that
suggests decades of hardship and swallowed rage. “Allahu akbar!”
After a minute or two, a male voice joins in. It’s as if he needed a
little time to put on his slippers and clamber to the rooftop.
“Allaaaaahu akbar,” he moans.
Within a few minutes a choir of voices erupts.
“Ya, Hossein!” a man with a sturdy baritone announces across the lush
trees. “O Hossein!”
“Mir-Hossein!” a group of women shrieks back, every ounce of energy
straining through petite voices.
“Marg bar dictator!” a voice erupts. “Death to the dictator!” And then
more voices, a cacophony of anonymous anger. “Marg bar dictator. Marg
I have never thought of the quiet, leafy neighborhood where I stay
when I’m in Tehran as particularly political. During the daytime, the
only sounds are of water streaming through the canal.
My greatest concern has been to skip out of the way of the young guy
speeding down the narrow street in his SUV, pop music blaring out his
Until now, the most momentous events have been the rollicking parties
some of the neighbors have thrown, which filled the street with cars
But my opinion started to change after Iran’s June 12 presidential
election. Supporters of losing candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi called
for Iranians who had voted for him to climb to their rooftops between
9 and 11 p.m. and shout “God is great!” to voice their discontent over
The gesture harks back 30 years to the months before the Islamic
Revolution. It was a way to reassure others that they weren’t alone in
feeling wronged and enraged.
Today it motivates people to attend the peaceful marches that have
become the largest acts of civil disobedience in three decades.
On Friday, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s highest
spiritual and political authority, laid down the law: There would be
no reconsideration of the vote count. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s
reelection would stand. No amount of pressure, even the hundreds of
thousands marching through the streets, would make him bend.
Protesters would continue at their own risk.
As Friday night approaches, I wonder whether Khamenei’s prayer sermon
will quell the voices.
When 10 p.m. arrives, there is nary a sound except for the wind
brushing against the drapes. But then the silhouettes begin to emerge,
lithe teens and potbellied men.
“Allahu akbar!” the two young women cry out across the rooftops.
Another voice joins in, and then another, and then another, building
to a crescendo.
“Allaaaaahu akbar!” a deep male voice crests.
The voice is beautiful, and easily recognizable as the muezzin from
the local mosque.
“Allaaaaahu akbar!” his rich voice echoes through the neighborhood.
After reading the piece, I emailed the author to see if he had any recordings of the shouting. He did, and was gracious enough to share them.
Bill B. forwarded a video of the same event, different night, called “Poem for the Rooftops of Iran”
The narrator calls rooftop shouting:
“One of the most simple and effective ways to call people to come together. They can take away our text messaging. They can take away our internet. They can even take away our phones. But with our cries of Allah-o-Akbar we will show them we can still come together.”
Voice here is useful not only for the reasons listed above (convenience, emotional impact, solidarity) but because it confers visual anonymity. With protesters now standing trial in Tehran, and with executions being a very real threat, the protesters were clearly not wrong to avoid letting their faces be associated with their words.
Of course, not every protest is the same, and not all protesters are “right” (though I happen to sympathize pretty strongly with the dissenting voices in Tehran). I am not exploring voice in order to blindly join the cause of everyone in the world who is politically unsatisfied, or who identifies, however vaguely, with “the left” or whatever. The compelling question here, for me, is how our senses are utilized, controlled, and contested in fields of ideological difference.