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The many faces of silence

The Trump administration has given rise to many new iterations of pious cautionary remembrance, perhaps best captured in the speech-litany of German pastor Martin Niemöller: “First they came for the ________ but I did not speak out.” When, after all, should we speak out? Behind the scenes at Covenant, we have been having a lively conversation about whether we should write posts that are more overtly political, and much of that conversation hinges on the question of when it is appropriate to “speak up” about something, to call attention to it, to “take a stand,” and so on.

It has become a commonplace to suggest that not speaking up is a kind of privilege. If I, as a white male, were directly affected by the kinds of things that seem to be affecting people of color, among others, I wouldn’t have the luxury of wondering whether I should say something. Lives would be at stake. My life would be at stake. (For a sample of thoughts on this topic, just Google “silence is white privilege” or something similar.)

I take it for granted that this assertion is normally true. In anti-bullying literature of recent years we are told that we should not be “bystanders,” but “upstanders,” which is to say that, if we see something happening that should not be happening, we shouldn’t just let it happen. We should speak up, stand up for what is right. And amen to that.

But it is not clear to me that we can describe the entire conglomeration of “what is happening now in America” as a straightforward three-walled scene in which each individual can fulfill her duty by speaking up, and when we start asking what it means to speak up in this impossibly huge context, or what manner of speaking up is effective at reducing harm, then, frankly, the assertion that we cannot be silent in the face of this or that evil becomes more complicated and questionable.

I know a lot of conservative Christian people who use the language of silence/speaking up to describe the moral demands of the pro-life cause. I know a lot of liberal/progressive people (Christians and not) who use the language of silence/speaking up to describe the moral demands surrounding the current administration and its policies. In neither case am I sure what it would mean for me to “speak up,” for me to refuse to be silent in the face of this or that perceived atrocity.

I agree that abortion is a grave evil. I agree that we should take care of the most vulnerable in our society. I also agree that Donald Trump appears to be a horrible person who demeans women (inter alia), and I worry about the climate that his leadership sets for my daughter’s future. But, again, is saying these things out loud (or in print) “speaking up”? Lives may be at stake, but do we really think that everything will just get better if everyone speaks their opinions more loudly, if everyone posts more on Twitter, attends more protests, sends more letters to Congress, or stages more strategic boycotts of companies that stand on the wrong side?

It’s no good thinking that we can salve our consciences just by “speaking up” to anybody or everybody in the unstructured nihilistic vacuum that is public discourse today.

The Los Angeles Times published an op-ed following Trump’s interview with Bill O’Reilly with the dramatic headline “Hypocrisy isn’t the problem. Nihilism is.” I agree, but the difference is that I cannot scapegoat Trump as the Bringer of all Chaos. Trump, the author writes, operates on a new “shameless plane.” This is comforting to many readers who find their suspicions of Trump’s inhumanity affirmed. Shame is a human emotion, after all, and as such it must be limited to our group, which doesn’t include Trump and his followers. (Social psychologist-theologian Christena Cleveland talks about this as “infrahumanization,” in which we assign human qualities to our group to distinguish it from another.)

Trump’s shamelessness is nothing new; neither is his apparent nihilism. It is what we have hammered into our children for decades, even while assuming with the happy optimism of late modernity that what we thought of as standard human “values” would endure after we killed off God or relegated him to the realm of private “religious” experience. It is difficult to feel shame or fear when the source of all being is a matter of private opinion.

The students I teach don’t really care whether there is a God. It’s not an interesting question. When asked if murder (or some other “obvious” evil) just is wrong, independent of questions of law, they look at me with blank expressions. They are convinced beyond doubt that people should be able to marry whoever they want, be whatever gender they want, pursue whatever dream they want, etc., but they cannot tell me why this is, or whether it is really fair to categorize these things as intrinsically good or bad. Their solution to all the problems in the world is often, very simply, People should be nicer. I suggest it just comes down to a theoretical maximization of personal desire: What kind of world do we need to create so that I can get what I want as often as I want?

This makes them sound like horrible people, maybe. They’re not. They’re wonderful kids, and I’m happy to have my family and my kids living and working with them. And there are exceptions all the time. But increasingly I see little substantial difference between the nihilistic polite kids in school dress and the nihilistic street kids I recently saw cycling down the road in central Philadelphia powered on a river of f-bombs. Our whole country is full of potential Donald Trumps, and just as many of them are “progressive” as are “conservative”; many of them just go with whatever political ideologue seems best at the moment.

How can we “speak up” in such a climate? How can we speak up when our language no longer makes sense to most of the people who hear it?

I don’t think we can. Not really. I don’t fault those who try, or who find themselves in the role of activist, but I’m convinced that Civil Rights-style activism is no longer usefully intelligible in a world that has abandoned the kinds of assumptions about truth and reality that still seemed intact 50 years ago. To cry out for justice requires the existence of a justice beyond the politically negotiated convictions of the moment. To cry out for equal rights requires a concept of rights founded in something other than the “facts” of science (as if facts could have moral weight) or the expedient views of a majority vote. But these are foreign things from another age, another world, one that we no longer inhabit.

Am I here echoing the cultural pessimism embodied in the Benedict Option? Perhaps so. But like Andrew Petiprin, I’m not convinced that hunkering down in our ecclesial ghettoes is the only way forward. We should indeed build our institutions and common life, but we should at the same time do everything that we can to recover and spread the personal virtues of hospitality and friendship that alone are capable of countering the coarse nihilism of the age.

I happened to be at the biennial conference of the National Association of Episcopal Schools the day after the election in November. It was fascinating. Many chaplains and administrators were visibly upset; many expressed deep concern for their students and how they would respond to the election. They worried that they needed to be there to comfort them and “say something.” They were concerned about various groups and their needs and feelings — all very nobly, to be sure.

But I wonder if our role is less to comfort those stuck in various group identities than it is to work on the very slow and unrewarding task of rebuilding a common vocabulary. What’s more important? Speaking truth to power, or learning how to make friends?

Silence may not be a moral option in the face of an immediate threat, but at times it may be the only way to embody true justice.


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