An eager reader sent me question via the contact form: Is silence really complicity?
My correspondent sought a response by email, but when I tried to reply, my correspondent’s server repeatedly rejected my email. Alas! Lest my correspondent take my silence as a sign of deliberate complicity in some nefarious plot, I post my reply here for my correspondent and all other eager readers to consider.
First, let me summarize the scenario framing the reader’s question. I paraphrase to protect the innocent (or is the silent reader complicit?):
I follow an online activist who is protesting anti-LGBT terrorism like the Club Q mass shooting. I am bothered by the activist’s claim that “Silence is complicity.”
The activist uses that phrase to push people to speak up, but activist ignores that fact that many people, like me, cannot speak out easily or safely. Some people live in small, conservative communities where speaking out will result in bullying, abuse, loss of friends, and loss of work. Such retribution can take a toll on anyone’s mental health. People coping with other mental health challenges may not be able to take further damage to their mental health and choose to stay silent out of self-preservation.
I appreciate activists who speak out passionately to defend human rights, but I get the sense that this activist uses “Silence is complicity” to put down people who don’t speak out, even those who may not live in a supportive community that will protect a vocal activist from retribution.
Is silence complicity? Or is vocal activism on controversial issues too much to demand of some people in precarious situations?
Here’s how I replied to this reader. I welcome (and I think my reader will welcome) your thoughtful, constructive responses and rebuttals in the comment section.
“Silence is complicity.” You hit on a really complicated issue: what guilt do we bear when do not take action against injustice? Are we really involved in and responsible for injustice when we are not directly committing the injustice but do not intervene to prevent others from committing the injustice or at least speak up against the injustice?
Part of the challenge in answering this question is our concern (certainly a concern I wrestle with) about establishing our moral worth. We don’t want to feel guilty. We want to feel we are good people. We want to do everything we can to be good people. And we’d kind of like other people, like the online activist you mention, to see that we are good people and not bring us down by saying we’re not.
(Spoiler: part of the answer I’d like to build toward is, “Who gives a darn what other online activists think about us?”)
In a basic way, “Silence is complicity” is true. When we witness injustice but do not criticize it or say, “Hey, stop that,” we leave it easy for the bad guys to keep committing injustice. We leave the impression that bad guys will not face moral or practical blowback for their unjust acts. Speaking up against injustice is right; thus, inescapably, remaining silent in the face of injustice is wrong.
But how wrong? How guilty should we feel about our silence? We can’t measure our goodness or guilt in grams, but we can at least imagine a spectrum of good and guilt:
- Acting to stop unjust acts.
- Speaking up against unjust acts.
- Not intervening in others’ unjust acts, but not committing unjust acts yourself.
- Committing unjust acts.
We complicate that spectrum if we try to fit comforting the victims of injustice into that spectrum. Imagine this scenario: Bad guys have done bad stuff to people. We don’t step in or speak up against the bad actions, but when the coast is clear, we offer quiet practical support to the victims of those bad actions. Refer to Nazi Germany or Red China for examples: maybe we don’t run into the street and get into fistfights with the Gestapo when they round up Jews or the Chinese police when they are arresting dissidents, but we quietly help Jews and dissidents escape the country, or we secretly leave food and money for the widows and children of political prisoners. Such acts are definitely moral. Are they as moral as direct protest or resistance? Does it matter if we can quantify them as more, equally, or less moral?
The question you raise and that activist raises is whether we are obliged to engage in any particular form of resistance to injustice. Is every person who fails to become a vocal activist like the one you mention morally inferior to that vocal activist or, as the activist’s accusation suggests, morally equivalent to the bad guys whom they don’t resist with the volume and vigor the vocal activist demands?
I’ve faced a question like this in blogging. Many times I have felt like one of the few people raising my voice against various unjust acts. When I have tried to get others to raise their voices, many have said things like you are saying, that speaking up would exact too great of a toll on them. I believe many people overestimate the toll they would pay for speaking up, especially when we’re talking about simple factual matters, like reporting corrupt actions by government officials, facts that we could support if the witnesses would simply go on the record and share the documents they have.
But I can recognize a difference between stating facts (“Senator X did corrupt act Y on Date Z, and here are the documents to prove it”) that might provoke some retribution from a political machine and taking a moral stand that defies not just the ruling party but a bigoted, fascist majority in an insular small-town culture. It’s good and well to yell, “Silence is complicity!” to guilt people into vocal resistance. But when you shout it at one skinny guy surrounded by a bunch of drunk and belligerent rednecks, you’re asking that skinny guy to invite a good pounding. That one guy’s silence in a bigoted, fascist crowd allows the crowd to continue blithely exercising its bigotry and fascism, but that guy’s speaking up in that crowd, alone, without planning and backup and an escape route, may not practically reduce injustice. Speaking up may only signal virtue to the online activist (safe in behind his computer screen in his community) and land the skinny guy in the hospital with no job to return to when he gets out.
Maybe speaking up wins merit points in theory, but in practice, what does that merit matter—why assign it?—if speaking up produces no positive change but only harm to the speaker?
If merit points do exist on some spectrum of good and guilt, we should remember that none of us really maximize our scores. We all leave some injustice—actually, most injustices—unredressed. We could always do more. But demanding that we all always do more may lay waste to our ability to do anything to fight injustice.
Consider the injustice of poverty. Consider it in the practical, immediate context of the Sioux Falls schools saying they are going to stop serving meals to students who don’t have lunch money and whose parents haven’t done the paperwork for free lunches. Letting children go hungry is unjust. I should resist that injustice. I shouldn’t just speak up (“Hey, Sioux Falls schools! Feed those kids!”); I should go to the Sioux Falls schools in person and start writing checks to buy every poor kid lunch. That’s the most moral action I could do, right, bringing an immediate and practical end to children going hungry?
But given the SFSD lunch deficit is $105K and rising, I’d go broke within a month. I’d no longer be able to resist injustice in Sioux Falls, and now not only would those Sioux Falls kids go hungry, but so would my kid and my dog. I’d be so busy trying to get out of bankruptcy that I wouldn’t have the resources to organize some community relief effort or campaign for a political solution that would produce durable practical policy to make school lunches free again for every child in Sioux Falls. I’d immolate my personal finances and possibly my family life for the sake of a feel-good gesture (or the pursuit of maximum merit points and minimum guilt) that provides only fleeting relief.
And even if I somehow had enough income flowing in to cover Sioux Falls kids’ school lunches and still feed my family, what about all the other schools in South Dakota where kids are going hungry? What about all the starving children in Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Africa? What about all the other injustice that I’m not resisting? Every moment that I spend fighting one injustice is unavoidably a moment when I am not fighting some other injustice. When I am speaking up about Kristi Noem’s corruption, I am silent about discrimination against LGBTQ kids. When I am speaking up against LGBTQ discrimination, I am silent about racial/religious/economic discrimination. When I am speaking against any kind of discrimination, I’m silent about the imminent destruction of our habitable ecosystem via climate change.
Is it wrong to be silent in the face of injustice? Yes.
Can we expect every person to speak up against every form of injustice at every moment? No.
The vocal activist you cite isn’t asking us to do the extreme omni-resistance I formulate in that last question. But that activist is making a demand that, while rooted in a kernel of truth, overstates the moral expectation we can lay on every listener.
The ultimate responsibility for injustice lies with those who do injustice. Those who do not commit injustice but also do not resist the injustice committed by others do not bear the same responsibility and cannot be subjected to the same guilt. Silent witnesses of injustice are not wholly innocent bystanders—we bear some guilt for not taking the highest moral action—and some witnesses remain silent out of nothing more than cowardice, for which we can make no excuses. But some witnesses are silent because they recognize their resistance would not only fail but produce more injustice, often in the form of personal consequences which they cannot practically bear and which would wipe out their capacity to work toward more effective acts of resistance.
That’s not a complete answer, but that’s what you got me thinking about. Tell me what those thoughts spark in your head!