The Complicity of Silence

The complicity of silence is a dangerous thing. Desmond Tutu rightfully said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Staying quiet in moments of adversity and unfairness is something we cannot afford any longer. It is impertinent that we find our voices to echo, support and educate each other on issues that divide us. Our ignorance does not minimize our responsibility or the impact and trauma it causes. If we do not help to solve the problem, we are the problem.

Every day we can see the effects of our silence manifest into discrimination, hatred, and violence. From the classroom to the boardroom, we are placed in situations where we are at a crossroads to either remain silent or speak up when something inevitably inappropriate or offensive arises. More often than not, we bite our lip, nod our head, fake a smile, laugh it off, avert our eyes, and remain silent. This speaks volumes because the things we let pass, are the things we accept.

We think that by remaining quiet, we are avoiding conflict, being accepted or are minding our business. Instead, we are enabling toxic behaviours and perpetuating injustices onto others and ourselves. What we fail to realize is that by remaining silent, we are strengthening ignorance as we indicate that we agree with what is happening. Ignorance doesn’t need words to be encouraged because silence is always misinterpreted as agreement.

We spend our lives telling people the things they want to hear, instead of the things they need to be told. We tell ourselves that we have no authority or moral high ground to speak up because we have our own toxic behaviours as well. Although no one is born woke or perfect, it is never too late to check yourself and right your wrongs. We must always listen to others, reach out, make room, and be open to challenge our thinking. Don’t feel as though your past invalidates your current mindset and growth. Instead, be proud of your evolution and continue to learn.

Although it is important to listen to what is said, it’s also important to listen to what is not said. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” This quote resonates with the notion that if an opportunity arises to speak up, we must do so. Speaking up has cascading effects in creating positive change as it not only impacts the individual acting toxic and the victim, but also those watching or listening. Our voice will give people something to think about and hopefully inspire others to step up themselves as well.

Quite often, toxic behaviour is hidden under the veil of humour. In many situations,  people think they are cracking jokes and being funny, but in reality, they are being offensive and hurtful. Whether their intent is malicious or not, they need to be checked. By staying silent, we signal that what they are saying is okay. We give them permission to continue.  However, by addressing this behaviour we help the individual realize they will be held accountable for their actions and words, but also allow them to grow and change for the better.

Nonetheless, there is a right way of speaking up. To avoid a dismissive or defensive interactions, it’s important to be respectful, honest and straightforward. If you think it’s appropriate to call it out as you see it, you can say, “that was offensive” or “I disagree”. You can also call out bad behaviour privately by saying “What did you mean by that comment?” or “I’m confused by what you said”. Speaking up doesn’t need to be a public statement or loud or aggressive. It needs to be genuine and level-headed. Another way to express your dissatisfaction is by looking perplexed — don’t laugh along, don’t smile, and don’t nod your head.

The complicity of silence is something we all participate in. It is important to challenge ourselves to be bold because our 15 seconds of feeling uncomfortable can really make a difference. Silence has devastating effects as it leads to harassment, abuse, rape, genocide and war. If you see or hear something hateful, derogatory, or offensive, call it out. Don’t let fear keep you from doing what is right.


*Disclaimer: The featured image is by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash.

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