There is the story of Ralph Waldo Emerson, America’s great essayist and civil libertarian, who found himself incarcerated for his refusal to pay taxes to support the Mexican war. His friend and fellow transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau visited Emerson in jail and, upon seeing him behind bars, asked what was he doing in there. Without missing a beat, Emerson shot back: “the question is not what I am doing in here, the question is what you are doing out there.”
Ah, for the days of principled conviction.
There was a time when dissent was considered an act of noble obligation to all manner of freedom – of choice, of speech, of belief - and the dissonant individual was lauded for his willingness to fall on the sword. We honor those people in our history books, their collective persistence steering the ship of state to still waters and safe harbor. Would that we could find a soul among us today equal to their measure.
Where have all the strong ones gone?
Today we find ourselves enmired in a tangle of moral relativism and self-serving rationalization regardless of consequence to those who drown in the wake of the powerful. Cowered and tired, we forsake the hard for the expedient; we follow the easier path regardless of personal detriment, loss of dignity and self-respect. In so doing we are complicit in our silence; in our failure to defend against wrong we acquiesce to acceptance. What we permit we teach. In the indelible words of Pogo, we have met the enemy and it is us.
In the early days of the AIDS crisis one could find graffiti on the sidewalks of New York that said Silence = Assent. Regrettably the warning was not well-understood, the challenge unmet, the lesson unlearned. We have now fully arrived at that awful place where expediency, opportunism and reverence to wealth largely transcend all other considerations, where voices are not heard for they do not speak, self-reflection is now glimpsed through shards of a broken mirror and self-examination is something left, if at all, at the therapist’s doorstep.
The tyranny of silence is manifest in the subjection of the weak by the strong, by disparity of influence and position, by abuse in the workplace, by the schoolyard bully and the shaming by women afraid to confront their aggressors who remain comfortably walled from accountability by their lawyers and their insurance. These acts do not occur in a vacuum yet the failure to step in, to speak up and to push back futher weakens proper social conduct, validating unconscionable behavior, leading only to coarsen our civil discourse and with it the exchange of requisite human decency no longer assumed. And the observer to abuse who does not act cannot escape culpability, for in their failure to inject correction they become an implicit participant; trust further erodes and the downward spiral of incivility and indifference perpetuate unchecked.
We are moving into the Era of the Crouch, Maslow’s survival instinct never more at play, where many have given up and are hunkered down, subsuming principle for non-confrontation. And in so doing we promulgate the very thing we fear. I say it again - what we permit we teach. We are pimping ourselves to the twisted notion of self-preservation through submission and inaction.
Where is our outrage?
Swept up in an era of accumulating distrust of our institutions, our information and our beliefs, it is not hard to understand that our values would suffer concurrently. The noise level is so high, the din falsely generated through the anguish of social media conflation, the sharp-elbowed debate of petty differences, fake news and political artifice that it is no wonder the individual is beaten down, resigned, tuned-out to all but the solace found in retreat, in the safety of home and the trusted circle of a few close friends. There is simply no strength left to fight the good fight. We have become so inured to brutality we simply turn away. Inertia prevails. We accept the unacceptable. It is tragic and we should be ashamed.
So, as we close out this rancorous end to a most difficult year, it is this writer’s wish that the new year brings a few of us closer to reason, to the elimination of gratuitous exercises of power, unwarranted and selfish behavior and that we begin the long crawl back to some modicum of integrity, sensitivity and consideration that once held loftier status in our ideals of personal and professional conduct.
In the end, our incarcerated Emerson was a fervent believer in the infinite possibility of the private individual. May we, as a people, as we enter the black maw of a new year, remember both the privacy and liberating portions of his thought and celebrate what is attainable. May we, more than anything, begin with a reaffirmation of kindness toward each other. From this simple act all else flows and all else is possible.
Let us come to prove that the tyranny of silence is not intractable. It actually could be a happier new year if only we choose to make it so.