Friday, April 1, 2016

Silence and justice...

I recently heard a question that is staying with me. During a discussion of instances wherein something hurtful, based on derogatory stereotypes, was said or done...the question was asked: "Can silence ever be just?" (I'm equating silence here to mean both not saying anything and/or not doing anything when witnessing injustice)
Can this be just?
One definition of just is: "consistent with with what is morally right...". I admit that get a little nervous around the word "moral" since I grew up being indoctrinated with the southern baptist brand of religion and "moral" tended to be wielded like a battle axe...it was used mostly to wound or shame or control...way more often than it was used to soothe or elevate or inspire. And...most of the people who got all excited about being "morally upright" were folks I didn't much care for. Usually they were uptight and judgmental types who were just itching to point a finger at somebody and invoke the fires of hell and such.

I tend to equate the word just with fairness or absence of harm rather than "morally right". I like those notions because they usually compel me to think more extensively about a situation rather than jumping into a right/wrong binary and, in the process, accidentally activating southern baptist scripts from the bad old days.
 
Sometimes, speaking out against injustice (unfairness) or acting to interrupt injustice is complicated...perhaps by numerous factors. But...if we fail to speak out...or to interrupt hurtful or negative instances...can that failure to speak or act ever be just?

Someone I know recently talked about a family gathering for a funeral where many family members were experiencing grief and loss and during that time a derogatory statement (heteronormative stereotyping), was made by a family member regarding the minister who was conducting the funeral service. This wasn't said where the minister could hear it...but...it was said.

The person telling this story noted that she was conflicted about speaking out because of the event (a funeral) and because of the emotional state of the person who made the statement (a grieving family member). So, she said nothing. Yet...her silence has haunted her ever since. Maybe in that haunting there is a message.

Can silence ever be just?

That question resonated with me and still does.

Thinking about that leads me to wonder whether silence is the same thing as complicity? If I don't object or say anything...is that agreeing with something?

That's not the messaging I heard when I was growing up. Keeping your mouth shut was presented as staying uninvolved...of being neutral...of minding your own business if what was said or done had nothing to do with you. As I wrote that last sentence about minding your own business, it occurred to me that those notions of "minding your own business" are part of how individualism is promoted to us as we learn the ways of U.S. society. And, there are serious problems with this individualism stuff, but that's a topic for another post. Also...when I think about it...maybe this "mind your own business" stuff is part of how invisibling occurs.

I'm making a distinction here between stuff that isn't harmful or derogatory or demeaning or reality denying toward others and that which is.

If there's nothing negative or harmful or hurtful...then hey...being quiet...even if it means you're complicit is no biggee. But...if there is bad stuff being said or done...that's a different thing. I think maybe "minding your own business" in those instances puts you in a situation where you're (whether inadvertently or undesirably or not) effectively on the side of harm. Jeez...it's complicated.

But...opting out of being complicit by speaking...often carries a price.

"Free" speech is a little misleading because all that means is that there theoretically aren't any governmental or official restrictions on speech...that doesn't mean there aren't social or personal costs for speaking. Maybe that's where the notion of sacrifice comes in. Interrupting injustice or unfairness by speaking out (or doing something) rarely can be done without some sort of price or cost.

If you want to "stand up for justice" or "speak out against harm" (whatever form that harm takes) it might be new to you to realize that it rarely is easy and it rarely is without negative consequences. Everyone reading this knows that, you might not have thought much about it...but you know it. Because, just like me, every one of you (I betcha) have been in a situation where something harmful or derogatory was done or said...and you didn't interrupt it or speak out against it. Just like I've failed to do...way too often. 

But...and this is the part where I have much more work on me to do...not speaking also carries a price. Remember before when I wrote that the woman who didn't speak has been haunted by it ever since? That's the price she's paying for not speaking up. She felt uncomfortable and bothered by the derogatory remark and then she added to that discomfort by failing to speak.

Maybe a good way to think about it is that there's no free ride...we'll pay one way or the other.

When I think about it like that it sort of gets clarified...hey...when I'm in the presence of harmful sayings or doings...I'm going to pay a price. I don't have a choice...my only choice is about which price I want to pay and what am I getting for my cost.

Do I want to speak out or interrupt the harm...and get the satisfaction of knowing I made an effort (and pay a price...but I did get the benefit of trying) or do I keep quiet or still and get nothing (and pay the price of being haunted or bothered by my not trying).

Either they're going to get me or I'm going to get me...and since I have to be with me all the time...probably...it's less of a cost for them to get me than it is for me to get me. If I don't speak out or interrupt the harmful stuff...I'll feel bad about my failure. If I do speak out, I might feel scared or uncomfortable about speaking out and...I might experience rejection or retaliation by those who originated the harmful words or deeds.

Maybe I can think about this as a sharing experience. Someone says or does something derogatory or harmful that makes me uncomfortable...if I object or interrupt that stuff then I'm sharing my discomfort with others instead of keeping all to myself. Sharing is good, right?

Maybe I'm actually helping the perpetrator...for them to be willing to say or do harmful things...maybe they don't perceive the hurtfulness of their speech or actions and my sharing my discomfort is my way of increasing their awareness. That sounds sort of nifty...except...I know and you know that people usually don't pass out cookies when someone points out that they're harming others. 

Hmmm...it's interesting to think of silence and justice in these ways.

I'll end this post with an image of MLK and a saying attributed to him that grows in power for me as I go along life's journey. It's becoming one of my favorite sayings as I continue to struggle to extract myself from the awful lies that my culture, with a smiling and kindly and cheerful face, taught me. 

2 comments:

Have Gone Vegan said...

OMG, I am so SO far behind in commenting (as well as posting), so I hope you didn't interpret my "silence" as lack of interest. Just life screwing up my plans big time, snort. I'm gonna try and slooowly get caught up here, although it may take a while... :)

In a nutshell, I would say no, silence can never be just when witnessing someone say or do something hurtful. But yes, it can be hard or tricky to intervene, and it's usually not appreciated.

About a week ago, two people in the staffroom started a conversation about how much they love bacon, how delicious it is, blah blah blah. Naturally this annoyed me (did they forget there was a vegan in the room? or consider whom I don't eat a personal preference only?), and I was eager to get away. So as I quickly ate my banana, one person said they should think about the amount of salt involved, and at that point I piped in and said, "and think about the poor pigs too" while walking out.

That this made them uncomfortable was clear as they made sure they were finished with their lunch before I had mine (it usually overlaps), but I was okay with that. And even though a part of me was disappointed in myself for not staying and having a longer conversation about the cruelty of bacon, I was still glad that I had at least expressed some opposition. Had I not done that, I too would have felt haunted.

Would it be possible for your friend to still speak up? Maybe go back to that family member and say something like, "Hey, remember what you said about the minister at the funeral? I didn't feel comfortable saying anything while you were so upset, but could we talk about it now?" It's never too late I think.

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting HGV. And thanks for speaking out.

After I wrote this piece I thought more about it and considered the question of whether or not silence can sometimes be situationally wise as long as...as you note...the silence isn't permanent and is broken at some later...and more judicious...time. Especially in the case of when there's no necessity to intervene or speak up to prevent harm at the moment.

That doesn't mean silence isn't complicity...it just means the timing of breaking the silence can maybe be variable.