The Silent Sanction
I was at a conference at New York University for a couple days and at one point I took a walk with my partner through Washington Square. We walked past the arch and then was a young boy practicing his tennis swings by hitting a ball against the side of the arch. Unfortunately for him, he was not alone. His father was with him.
As we walked away I could hear the tennis ball thumbing against the wall. But there was something else. Now and then the boy would miss the ball. When something went wrong there was this loud, abrasive, almost violent screaming coming out of the father. He berated the boy, telling him he was hopeless and useless. I could see the boy’s spirit was broken, he was terrified of the man, even in public. I recognize the cringing fear in him as my own.
My father was a drunk and abusive. He usually directed his violence at my mother and when he did she would scream for me knowing, although I was just a child, I would try to stop him. He would then ignore her and turn his attention to me and she’d sit there and pretend nothing was happening. It only stopped one Mother’s Day when I was 11-years-old. She screamed for me again and I fearfully made my way down the hall toward the living room.
I heard her screaming and she ran out the front door. I crept to the end of the hall and looked in. My mother was gone and my father was on the couch having a heart attack. I turned around and went back to my room. When the ambulance arrived I watched them take his dead body away and I felt safe again.
Abuse was not something anyone talked about. My mother made it clear I was to never say a word about it. I honestly thought all homes were the same. I thought the violence I experience was normal. But I hated it. And as I grew older I developed a rabid hatred for it happening to others as well.
As I heard the demeaning insults that day in Washington Square it took a minute or two for me to fully grasp what was going on. I looked across the park at this man and watched for a few seconds. I then practically ran at him and started unleashing my own anger. I told him all the things I wished I could have told my own father. This bully of a man looked shocked and horrified. The poor boy was terrified. He was broken the way victims often are broken.
The boy was almost crying. “No, it’s my fault,” he said, over and over to me. It is the Stockholm syndrome of every abused child. The child, yearning for a world that makes sense, assumes the abuse they suffer must also make sense. For it to make sense, it has to be something they did. That’s what the abuser always tells them. “It’s your fault.” “Why do you make me hit you like this?” The child wants to believe it is his fault because at least it makes some sense then. Otherwise, they are just the random victim of irrational human injustice.
As the boy kept repeating to me that it really was his fault I looked at him and said, “No, it’s NOT your fault. It’s his fault.” It was what I wished someone had told me when I was a boy.
I walked away before I lost my temper completely and got physical — which is probably a good thing since I suspect he could have beat the crap out of me.
I was almost out of the park again when I heard this bully screaming at the boy again. I turned, ready to go back. Then I saw a man who was standing on the sidelines before. Previously he just stood there and watched. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t step in. This time he rushed in and started reading the riot act to the father. What he saw a few minutes earlier gave him permission to do what his heart told him he should have done the first time.
Speaking out doesn’t just challenge the warped justifications for violence, hate, abuse or bigotry; it also gives others permission to speak out as well. It is how cultures change.
Roger Huffstetler was a former Marine who learned two fellow Marines with whom he was stationed in Afghanistan were gay. He never knew it at the time. He wrote, “I had always imagined that if I’d lived in the time of segregation and the civil rights movement, I would be the white Southerner who was proud to march with the NAACP — that I would tear down bigoted beliefs and demand equality for all, even putting myself at risk if need be.”
But he saw and heard hate against gay people and says he stayed silent. “I didn’t do those things. I watched the fight right in front of me without question, inactive and accepting — just like the generations before me.”
He only learned the truth after they were all discharged and he contacted both men and apologized. They assured him he did nothing to them personally but he said he had to apologize for his silence. He wrote, “Silence is a most powerful consent.” Novelist Ayn Rand said something similar. She called what Huffstetler described, the “silent sanction,” and advised, “Do not keep silent when your own ideas and values are being attacked.”
I would go one step further. Do you truly value something if, when it or they are attacked, you stand by silently. You are not just silently sanctioning the attack, you’re stating that which is being assaulted isn’t truly of value to you.
Today we are surrounded by loud, vocal bigotry and hate. It is openly encouraged by the elected officials of one major party. The previous president of the United States campaigned as a proud bigot and the haters of all kinds flocked to cheer him on.
Bigots live in a world of lies and delusions and one favored delusion is, “I’m just saying what everyone else thinks.” They want to believe the “silent majority” is on their side. Having others speak out strips them of this delusion.
Some have said to me, we shouldn’t criticize bigots because it is somehow encouraging censorship. That’s a really unjustifiably broad definition of censorship. They also say, “Well, what good does it do? After all they aren’t going to change their opinion.”
No, they probably won’t, but the more negative feedback they receive the more they keep silent. Whether that changes their opinion is almost unimportant. What it is shown to do is prevent the transmission of bigotry to new generations. The less bigotry individuals grow up hearing, the less bigoted they are in both thought and deed. Look at bigotry as a disease and the bigot as a carrier. Just because he’s still infected doesn’t mean we can’t prevent transmission of the virus merely by speaking out against it. It doesn’t violate the rights of the bigot to know he’s not speaking for you.
And, when you do speak out, you give others permission to do so as well.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said:
“A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.”