To Speak or Not to Speak

To Speak or Not to Speak

There is a beautiful passage in the Bible that begins, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven,” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). One verse reads, “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” Like most of the words of wisdom in the Bible, it refers to purposeful acts. It means that there is a time when it is better to be silent than to speak, and there is also a time when it is important to speak up or take action.

What the passage does not mean is that silence as a result of indifference is acceptable. It is not. In fact, it is dangerous. We can never afford to be indifferent. As the late Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and first co-chair of the Aurora Prize, said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

A Time To Keep Silent

There are times in life when keeping the silence is the best course of action. Wise parents say to their newly-married children: “Pick your battles.” They mean: Do not argue with your spouse over every annoying thing. Choose to fight only about important things. Otherwise, stay silent. Do not open your mouth, but also control your actions: Do not slam dishes around, frown, or physically indicate your displeasure. Small annoyances will pass with time. Speak up about issues that really matter. Your family life will be much more pleasant.

Silence can be a strength during negotiations. In business, it is good strategy to say your piece, then remain silent. It signals that you are confident of your position, and that you respect the other person to make an informed decision, and speak when ready. Silence is also a beneficial technique used by psychologist to encourage a patient to speak. We humans often find silence uncomfortable and will talk to fill the void.

Silence can also be a form of protest. In 2016 at a youth forum organized by the Canadian Labour Congress, some delegates stood up and silently turned their backs on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. They used silence to demonstrate their anger over his insistence that they learn to accept precarious work (uncertain jobs with no pensions) as a new fact of life. They ignored his frustration at their refusal to engage with him in dialogue. Their message was expressed more clearly than any shouting could have conveyed. The time for speaking has passed, they were saying. We need action.

In 2014 the “United We Stand Silent March” occurred in St. Louis, Missouri. Protesters wore fluorescent-colored tape over their mouths, written with the names of black citizens who had been killed as a result of police violence. They silently marched through the city, bringing awareness to an alarming civic issue. “We don’t always have to be vocal and loud,” said Bishop Derrick Robinson, one of the organizers. “Silence can make a powerful statement.”

Sometimes we are forced into silence, or its physical equivalent—inaction—against our will by a serious threat. There are thousands of examples of Turks and Kurds who tried to prevent the deportation of their Armenian and Assyrian neighbours in 1914-16, but were threatened with severe loss or even death. Various governors, such as Mazhar Bey of Ankara, Hamid Bey of Diyarbekir, and Celal Bey of Aleppo, lost their jobs for refusing to take part in deportations and massacres. Others, such as kaimakams (district governors) Ali Sabit Es Süveydi of Besiri, and Hüseyin Nesimi of Lice, lost their lives. When the Ottoman government learned that many Turks were helping their neighbours avoid deportation by hiding them or helping them escape into the hills, it issued a public notice: “If any Moslem protect a Christian, first, his house shall be burned, then the Christian killed before his eyes, and then his [own] family and himself.” Faced with this real threat, not only your own death, but that of your wife and children and the very people you were trying to save, what would you do? What else could you do but remain still and silent? Anything else would be foolish and pointless.

Fear Masked as Indifference

Fear is a powerful emotion. When the threat is real, fear can prevent us from doing something stupid or dangerous to our well-being. But there is also “imagined fear”—fear that is irrational. In other words, FEAR = Fantasy Experienced As Reality. Children often fear the dark or “the monster under the bed.” Adults have imagined fears, too. However, rather than recognize them as fears, we have a sneaky way of avoiding them by “reclassifying” them. Rather than admit a fear of learning new technology or exploring new ideas, we say, “I’m too old to change.” We convince ourselves not to pursue our dreams rather than face the possibility of failure: “I can’t do that right now, because…” the economy is bad, I’m too busy, my mother is sick, my dog died.

Fear of a lack of control over our own future, or a sense of helplessness, masks itself as indifference. We shrug and say, “Why bother to vote? It won’t change anything.” We fear we don’t have the power to rid governments of corruption, so we say, “It’s everywhere. All politicians are corrupt. What can I do?” And we do nothing. Or we accept a bribe to vote for a particular candidate or party because “what could it hurt? They’re going to rig the election to get elected anyway.” That’s a guarantee for nothing to change.

But of course, eventually, inevitably, change does happen. There comes a time when we shake off our indifference, usually because we can’t stand our impotence any longer. Fear gives way to rage. And rage results in drastic change. It can be bloody and violent, like the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, or quietly determined, like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But anger is an unstable emotion, and is not usually accompanied by rational thought. We saw this recently in the United Kingdom with Brexit (the exit from the European Union), and in the United States with the election of Donald Trump. Enough citizens voted to cause these drastic events, but everyone in the world must now live with the consequences.

Changing Attitudes

The best kind of change happens when one person expresses a thoughtful idea, others examine it, find merit in it, and join in. It grows naturally, organically blossoming into a healthy system that benefits society. The process usually takes longer than a revolution, but not much. Here are two good examples.

About half the population of Canada smoked cigarettes in the early 1980s. Most people started smoking as teens or young adults. It was considered “cool” to have a cigarette in your hand. All the seductive advertising by the tobacco companies said so. Everyone knew that smoking causes cancer, but when you’re young, cancer happens to “someone else.” Many smokers wanted to quit, but it is an addictive habit and very difficult to abandon. Growing evidence was showing that “second-hand” smoke also causes cancer, but it was a rare non-smoker who would ask a smoker not to smoke in his presence. The prevailing attitude towards smoking was indifference.

A few concerned people—scientists, doctors, parents—decided that the future of the next generation and those to follow was at stake. They formed anti-smoking groups, talked to people, made their position know publically. People listened and joined in. They raised money to establish organizations, to finance public awareness campaigns about the health risks, and to provide help for people who wanted to quit smoking. They convinced legislators to heavily tax cigarettes, making them more expensive, year after year. Then they produced advertising that portrayed smoking as “uncool.” Kissing a smoker was compared to licking an ashtray. Exhaling smoke was polluting the atmosphere and contributing to society’s ill health. People were no longer indifferent to smoking. Gradually but steadily, it began to be viewed as a filthy habit. There are still a large number of smokers in Canada today, but it is socially unacceptable in most circles. And it took less than ten years to change this attitude.

Another significant change happened in New York. In the 1980s it was a dirty, crime-ridden city, unsafe to take the subway during the day or walk along the streets at night. People were regularly mugged, the cops were “on the take”, vandalism was at an all-time high, and tourism was negligible. It was an awful place to live or visit. Then a new sheriff came to town. In 1990 Bill Bratton became the chief of the New York City Transit Police. He believed in the “broken window theory” of criminology—that preventing small crimes, such as vandalism, petty theft and public drinking, helps create an atmosphere of lawful order which, in turn, prevents more serious crime. He instituted a zero-tolerance policy in the subway system for jumping tolls, vandalizing property, and anti-social behaviour. People took notice. Within four years the subway became a safer, cleaner, more pleasant way to travel. Bratton was then hired as the city’s Police Commissioner. This time he took on more serious issues, such as cracking down on police corruption and being tough on gangs. But perhaps the most influential decision he made was for the police force to develop a strong relationship with law-abiding citizens. Beat cops (police officers whose job was to patrol the streets) got to know the people in their neighbourhoods. Support for his efforts grew and grew, until the citizens themselves felt responsible for and took pride in their city. New York became one of the most safe and vibrant cities in the United States. And it only took six years.

A Time to Speak

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result. If you want a better world for your children and grandchildren, you must make it happen. You. Fear masking as indifference manifesting as silence won’t create that world. Now is the time to speak up and take action. It means giving careful consideration to your beliefs, and acting with personal integrity, not on an emotional whim.

Change starts with one person speaking up, and another person responding in union. And then another. And another. After Donald Trump made an ugly and disparaging remark in November 2016 about groping women, Teresa Shook, a grandmother in Maui, Hawaii posted on her Facebook page, “Grrr, maybe we should march on Washington.” Within a few hours, forty people liked her idea. When she woke up the next morning, ten thousand people liked it. As a direct result, a quarter of a million people participated in “The Women’s March on Washington” the day after Trump’s inauguration. So did women and men in thirty-three countries around the world.

Of course, marches and tweets and Facebook posts are a pubic and noticeable form of speaking, but rarely do they bring about true change. “Democracy is not about protests,” said David Frum, conservative commentator and senior editor of The Atlantic magazine. “Democracy is about meetings.” He’s right. Change occurs in society when people meet one-on-one and in groups, together and with people in power, to discuss serious issues, ask probing questions, and insist on productive solutions. This is called civic responsibility. It is the foundation of democracy, and the cornerstone of a healthy society. Sadly, throughout the world, despite all the noise, it is eroding. But what is the alternative? “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government,” Winston Churchill noted, “except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

After the Holocaust, German pastor Martin Niemöller wrote: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

The time to speak is now. Before it is too late.


Wendy Elliott is the author of The Dark Triumph of Daniel Sarkisyan, a young adult novel about suvivors of the Armenian Genocide. She is currently writing Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad about a group of missionaries and relief workers in Talas, Turkey who saved thousands of orphans after the Genocide. To secure a publisher for this book, she must demonstrate support for the book through a sign-up mailing list on her blog page or a like on her Facebook page. Wendy would appreciate your support, and the support of your friends to help get it published.

by Wendy Elliott
February 21, 2017