I ask you today to open your mind to a thought that ought to be very uncomfortable for you.
But first, I want you to conjure up a specific image in your mind—you can choose from the many that have made their way through the various media in the last week—of one or two of the torch-bearing, Confederate-flag-and-swastika-waving bigots who marched on Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend.
Mine is the face of Peter Cvjetanovic, clad in his white polo and styled hair, holding his Tiki Torch and screaming next to the other young, white, male torch-bearers (you know, the one who, when outed this week, said, essentially, “I’m not the racist everyone is making me out to be.” Poor guy.)
But you choose your own. There are many photos and videos to choose from, and the cast of characters is huge. But the images seem to reveal some commonalities. They are violent. They are angry. They are organized. And they are ready to break your country into pieces.
Now here is the thought I want you to entertain: Maybe you are a bigger problem for us than they are.
I know, I know, it sounds farfetched. And trust me, I am as hypersensitive as they come and cannot stand to be accused of anything. So I feel you. But bear with me.
You might be worse for your country right now—and for human rights, social progress, Justice, etc.—than those neo-Nazis and white supremacists who stormed Charlottesville last weekend.
How could that even be possible?
When you are actually in a moment of history, you rarely understand its significance. In the first few years of The Civil Rights Movement, there was nothing called “The Civil Rights Movement.” It was just people like Rosa Parks acting for justice. Only later did we recognize the Montgomery Bus Boycott as a seminal moment in The Civil Rights Movement.
It seems to me that we are in quite a moment right now. I can’t say for sure how this will all look fifty or a hundred years from now and what the history books will say, but I have a suspicion that this era will be in there and that we will be judged for our roles in it.
What urges me to ask this difficult question of you is none other than Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself. Dr. King is on my short list of greatest heroes. He wrote and spoke so many words that have touched me in my deepest places. But the ones that seem to come back over and over to haunt and inspire me are his passages about silence and the role of “good people” in the culture of injustice that has defined America since its inception.
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
“It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’”
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
“To ignore evil is to become accomplice to it.”
“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
When silence is betrayal. The common definition of treason is “betrayal of one’s country.” But what about a betrayal of humankind in general? A betrayal of Goodness? Of Justice?
You see, when you are crusading for Justice, your biggest enemy is not the unjust but the indifferent.
Let me unpack that. If I am a leader tasked with combatting racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, anti-Muslim sentiment, you name it, the ones who do the most damage to my cause are not those guys in Charlottesville marching with their flags and beating people up. Those guys are the low-hanging fruit; they are easy to address and easy to rally against. They are deplorable and I wish they were gone, yes, but their kind of damage can be measured and contained. They are a broken bone—badly broken–not a cancer. No, the group that has the potential to quietly, casually allow disease to spread through my people are the silent, “good people” who say nothing when the bone-crusher rises up at our doorstep.
These “good people” can’t ever be singled out for using the “N-word” or openly discriminating against the Muslim family down the street. They may or may not have voted for the candidates who support tolerance and inclusivity, but they didn’t rally against them. They are always outwardly kind and respectful. So, what makes them the great “tragedy,” as Dr. King referred to them?
Their “appalling silence” when it comes to defining moments and matters of importance.
By the end of last weekend, you might have known that the events in Charlottesville were a big deal by the amount of media coverage they were getting, but I surely couldn’t tell by the number of my social media community who were speaking out against these people and their disgusting causes. Nearly everyone seemed to be just viewing it from a distance, as though it were a new television series and not a moral crisis point for our entire nation. By the end of the weekend, I was more disturbed by that “appalling silence” of the “good people” that are my social community than by the neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
I suddenly became very active on Facebook. I am typically the guy who looks at Facebook a lot but doesn’t post things on my personal page very often. Well, I started sharing and posting about Charlottesville and implored my community to speak up to their communities about it, stressing that silence communicates support for the white supremacists. I made a point of praising anyone who used their voice in any way—a personal post, a share, etc.—to address the issue. But the more I scoured my Timeline for people’s reflections, the more the silence became deafening to me. (I recognize that several days after the event, it started to become more fashionable to change profile pictures to “I stand against racism” and such, and I don’t wish to diminish those small steps. But my point remains.)
This is not a controversial topic. This is not something that a Democrat friend should think one way on and therefore a Republican friend should think the opposite way. Right? I mean, I know that since the election, almost everyone in my feed has become gun-shy about saying anything “political” in their posts for fear of stirring up another hateful argument and grating on all the raw nerves that the very long campaign process exposed. But, despite what some leaders might say about “many sides,” I think we can all agree that there is one side of this deal that is despicable. Saying so should not risk sparking a debate.
So, why the silence?
Honestly, is it not a big enough topic to raise your blood pressure? Does it just not move the needle for you? WHAT COULD BE BIGGER??? Are Liberty, Equality, and Justice not quite enough to get you to clear your throat and throw out a few words? Just a few.
If not now, when?
Seriously, if you haven’t gotten up in your social media community, family and friend community, spiritual community, or any other community this week and said that you disagree with the Charlottesville marchers and that you stand with the people they are trying to oppress, then I honestly don’t know what to do with you?
It scares me to have to wonder what is in your heart on this matter, especially when speaking out against hate would appear to come with no risk involved.
Your silence portrays, at best, indifference, and that indifference enables this type of nonsense to be normalized. Are you really in favor of normalizing Hate?
The topic demands that you stand up and take a position. Neutrality is not an option on something so big and so potentially damaging.
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
I wasn’t even going to write this week because I have been preparing for and on vacation. The thing that drove me to carve out the time was the very title itself: The Treason of Silence. I just know in my bones that this moment in time is our moment of reckoning—individually and collectively as a country—and that History will judge us accordingly. As much as “the appalling silence and indifference of the good people” truly does appall me, I know that my own silence on this matter might be my biggest regret. I choose to speak.
How about you? How have you chosen to react to the dramatic events in Charlottesville in recent days? Open up your journal and justify your level of action or inaction, your reasons for speaking up or being silent. Perhaps it is best to begin with how the events—the marches, the swastikas, the violence, the death—made you feel on the inside. What was your visceral reaction? Stunned? Appalled? Overjoyed? Disturbed? Relieved? Angered? Saddened? Indifferent? How would you describe both the feeling and the depth of it? How much did the images move your needle? If you said you were clearly affected by them—and especially if you felt that what was happening was terribly wrong–what did you do about it? Did you talk to anyone? Share on social media about it? Anything? If you did share, how long did it take you? What made you wait? Is this kind of open bigotry and hate becoming normalized? Is it now so normal that you didn’t—or almost didn’t—think to even say anything? Did you have anything to lose by speaking up—any social backlash, such as loss of friends or potentially angry debates with family members? If you had nothing to lose and still didn’t speak up, what do you think that says about your values and your character? Is the answer to that question a bitter pill to swallow? So, how about Dr. King’s sentiments? When evil is done and you are silent about it, are you an accomplice in that evil? Who is the bigger problem for our society today and the bigger barrier to eliminating the scourge of bigotry and hate: the thousands of people carrying the Confederate flags, shouting racial slurs, and beating people, or the millions of people who enable those thousands with their silence and indifference? Are you one of the thousands, one of the millions, or one of the ones who spoke up? Are you satisfied with your response? Did it match the level of the offense? If not, what will it take to get you to deliver a response worthy of the situation in the future? If this isn’t a disturbing enough event for you, what would be? Leave me a reply and let me know: Are you one of the “good people” who have remained appallingly silent?
Rise to the occasion,
P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. We all need to do some soul-searching on this one.