Silence is not golden

As a string of egregious actions make the news, including personal behavior that reveals the blindness of those in power and far too many policies that will secure that same blind power for decades to come, I am thinking today about the silence people use to avoid reckoning with their complicity. I am remembering moments in my youth, and sometimes later, when someone has made a statement, usually as a joke, sometimes with what he or she considers a keen sense of irony, that offends me whether or not it directly relates to me, yet the burden is on me to decide if I should say something, or if I should leave the conversation, or if I should rethink this friendship. This is the power of culture, especially our culture which relies on discrimination as a tool for power. It is this culture that makes me feel as if I’m being uptight or just can’t take a joke when I am gasping with shock or outrage or confusion (and this especially bothers me because I actually like to laugh, just not at the messed up things that people with too much power find amusing).

I will say this as strongly as I can—it is not the responsibility of those who are offended or directly harmed to speak up in that moment or in its aftermath. We can choose to speak when we are safe doing so, sure. But it is the responsibility of those who are making the jokes or engaging in the actions to be open to the possibility that everything they say or do is not actually fine or without consequence. Pay attention to those unexpected silences. Read the room. Stop and consider that just because you have the power in the moment to do or say whatever you want doesn’t make it right.

time limit on twitter

Your Tweets Are Not Enough

I made a resolution this year to be more active on Twitter, and so far I have managed to lose a lot of time on Twitter without gathering my courage to post anything. More often than not, a terrible event occurs (As-Seen-On-Twitter), and I get caught in a vortex of outrage and helplessness, peering at what looks like Apocalypse Now.

I struggle to identify the right response. Clicking “like” seems inappropriate, especially if an outrage relates to experiences that I sympathize with but may not bear the brunt of, which makes me feel, fairly, like Part of the Problem rather than the Supporting Caring Random Stranger that I hope to be if I click “like” on your Tweet.

I have set a goal to let the professionals handle the Right Response On Twitter. On the other hand, I worry that if I am not posting how I totally AGREE or DISAGREE on some issue, I am not being the ally that I need to be for people confronted with systemic oppression. I take some comfort in the fact that my number of followers is, um, petite, so the odds are good no one is waiting for me to do the right thing as a Twitter influencer.

Yesterday I read what I considered an appropriately outraged tweet telling me: “Your tweets are not enough” in the face of another horror. Since I still haven’t figured out what would be an appropriate tweet, I feel like a double failure, though I remind myself that I have taken actions IRL to stand up for those who are oppressed and to comfort those who are in pain.

It occurs to me that my feelings of guilt and inadequacy are appropriate. Dabbling on social media as a means of sharing thoughts and ideas is not a politically neutral activity. It is an exercise of privilege to engage in any activity without explicitly addressing matters of injustice. It is an exercise of privilege to enjoy a moment of quiet or humor or irony. Add to that the challenge that social media postings rarely reveal the unpolished layers of actual lives.

Here’s what I think for now: I will continue to engage in my own muted and unpredictable ways. In the face of outrages spotlighted on Twitter, I will aim to amplify the voices of those who might not be heard enough as well as those who have read and researched enough to compose appropriate responses. But writing about this topic here has helped me see what I hadn’t acknowledged before: the discomfort must exist. It should not be easy to decide what to say and when. It always matters, even the clicking of a like button. Or the not-clicking. The lurking or the speaking out.

My tweets are not enough. I don’t even have the right to know what actions would be *enough* in order to fight against systems of power that consistently and disproportionately harm our fellow human beings based on, for example, race, LGBTQ+, sex, religion, ability, class… So no, tweets are not enough because this is a battle for human dignity and the promise of democracy.

image of the book The Fifth Risk

Reading notes: The Fifth Risk

What is most remarkable about Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk is not that he makes us aware of more ways that the installation of a U.S. administration indifferent to the responsibilities of government is a threat to our safety and long term security but that he provides such a readable explanation of the workings of our federal agencies. As someone who has worked in state government first as a school teacher and later as a university staff member, I relished this celebration of the ways many people in these systems care deeply about what they are doing (or cared… apparently the folks now in charge of making sure our nuclear weapons don’t accidentally explode are sleeping on the jobs, and others are looking for a way to sell to the highest bidders little things like access to taxpayer-funded tornado warnings).

In my experience, the cultural assumption that there is no way that anything we were doing works or that we even knew what we were doing was far more harmful than some of the quirks of bureaucratic systems. Indeed, I even observed coworkers complain about the need for change as a given without recognizing that by complaining about the system as a monolith, they interrupted the power they actually had to contribute to our success. Worse, some would ignore what was working well and focus only on what somehow didn’t fit their usually unrealistic vision of a humans-can-be-treated-as-robots system in which everything runs like clockwork.

Not that I have an opinion on this.

As frightening as his topic could be (really, it feels as if any day we aren’t destroyed by reckless indifference, ignorance, and greed is a miracle), I embraced the chance to learn more about these dry topics in a way that wasn’t dry at all. I especially liked learning about individuals who care more about what they do than how much money they can make. Unsung heroes, yes, and role models of what it means to truly succeed.

Words matter.

It feels as if there are people who want to live in a world where everyone snarls and barks at one another. So into that atmosphere let me write out loud my values, starting with this one: It is worth the effort to speak with respect to one another. And to apologize if we lose our tempers. Of course I want those who commit crimes against others to face consequences and/or deterrence, and I absolutely condemn crimes of violence and hate. Let us speak loudly and with outrage about such crimes, especially those guided by prejudice and ignorance. But I want to speak with a respectful tone to and about actual human beings. I want to condemn the disrespect another human shows me, without treating that person with disrespect.

This is sometimes easier to say than to do. If my buttons get pushed, I too might let loose with colorful language. Or, worse, I find myself questioning the basic humanity of individuals who have done things that I find deeply offensive and harmful.

But if I can take a few breaths, I want to remember that it is the dehumanizing that I find so offensive. So I’d rather not replicate the very behaviors I claim to oppose.

Deep thought for this Friday: Do not do unto others as they sometimes do unto you. Condemn the behaviors, not the people. Deter acts of violence and that which dehumanizes others, yes, yes, yes. But also this: Speak to or with respect to everyone.

And if you are mad, even justifiably so, step away and take deep breaths so that you can try harder to say what is true, not just whatever colorful words might come to mind at first.