Silence Isn't Violence

There's a better way to stand up for justice than to punish those who aren't quick to condemn.

It happened more than 30 years ago, but the memory is still fresh. I was just about to sign the paperwork on a gym membership when the sales rep, out of nowhere, said something appalling—too appalling to repeat here. He said it so breezily, I was certain that I had misheard him. I might have even smiled a bit as I asked, “What did you say?” Then he doubled down.

With the accuracy of a sharpshooter, I aimed and fired my response—my words perfectly crafted to wipe the smug grin from his face and induce shame in his heart.

There was only one problem. The sharpshooter thing never happened. I did come up with a pretty good response, but it was hours later, over beers with friends. In the moment, I stared blankly. I felt frozen. I told the sales rep that I needed to think about the gym membership. I scooped up the paperwork and walked out. Not exactly an Aaron Sorkin moment.

I never joined the gym—not because of righteous indignation, but because I didn’t want to be reminded of my failure to condemn. That sense of complicity stayed with me for years.

“Silence is violence,” goes the slogan. But what is the right response when someone says something so offensive that it deserves to be condemned? And what is the right response to someone who fails to condemn, but they or others wish they had?

In a well-reported episode from March, Sandra Sellers, a Georgetown Law professor, was fired after comments she made to a colleague over Zoom about Black students’ performance in her class went viral. The colleague, David Batson, lost his job as well: He left because, as he wrote in his resignation letter, he “missed the chance to respond in a more direct manner to address the inappropriate content of those remarks."

“This experience has provided me, and I hope others, an invaluable opportunity to reconsider what actions should be taken when we encounter insensitive remarks,” Batson wrote.

If this is now the standard, I wonder who among us will be capable of living up to it, and what the cost will be.

Self-censorship, in the academy and elsewhere, is a legitimately worrisome phenomenon. People fear punishment for saying the wrong thing. But this new wrinkle—the impulse to compel speech, and the resulting fear of being punished for not speaking up—is just as worrisome.

There are plenty of reasons why someone might fail to condemn offensive remarks in the moment. One is “tonic immobility,” the feeling of being frozen in stressful situations. It’s cousin to the more familiar “fight-or-flight” stress responses that are triggered in the amygdala, one of the oldest parts of our brain. The freeze response is another involuntary defense mechanism we’ve inherited from our evolutionary past.

The problem is that the lesson professors and other professionals will take away from the Georgetown Law episode is that the freeze response can end one’s career. The episode also teaches that there’s nothing to be gained by taking the time to think through a response or quietly correct a colleague: Better to pull the pin out of the hand grenade.

But in order to be ready to condemn, we’d have to walk through the day ready for confrontation—anticipating that at any moment we will have good reason to condemn. That is no way to live. Yet increasingly, readiness to condemn seems to be what people expect of themselves and others. As we demand that people have ripostes at the ready, it means we’re entering conversations armed, our words sharpened, weaponized. Like jacked-up warriors, we’re almost disappointed if we don’t encounter something worthy of condemnation.

Of course, there are circumstances when the failure to condemn is itself a legitimate target for condemnation. The former president’s failures to condemn white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 spring to mind. He had time and a cadre of advisers to help him think through what he might say. As a person with tremendous political power and cultural influence whose words might have prevented violence, he had a moral duty to condemn.

But in our daily conversations as ordinary citizens, we can afford a more forgiving standard. In fact, we need a more forgiving standard if we are to rebuild the social trust that has been in such sharp decline.

For years, I replayed the scene with that sales rep. Next time I would be ready to do battle, I told myself, sharp-witted and brimming with virtue. But even today I rarely feel ready for such encounters, largely because I don’t expect people to be jerks—not as a default, anyway. When they are, I’ve learned that it’s the simple statement that works best. “I’m really sad (or concerned or hurt) to hear you say that” won’t win any Emmy Awards, but when I need it, it’s easy to grab.

But even a simple statement can be hard to find in the heat of the moment. Our hesitation may be born of fear, which can lead to feelings of shame. But our silence may be less about fear and more about uncertainty. Sometimes we need a minute, or a day, or a week to check our own reactions, especially when we feel the rush to judgment. The expectation that all reactions must be perfectly calibrated and immediately delivered robs us of the time we need to exercise humility and thoughtfulness.

In the Sellers case, Batson arguably had a moral duty to say something to his colleague. But it’s not entirely clear that condemnation would have been the most productive choice. Given more time to think it through, to seek counsel from others, Batson could have come back to Sellers to say, “Hey Sandra, I’ve been troubled by our last conversation, and I’d like to talk to you about it.” I’d be willing to bet that a default toward more conversation rather than condemnation tends to yield better outcomes.

If we shift our posture to a more charitable interpretation and proportionate response, if we expect our fellow citizens to act with decency and honor, we will likely lose the sharpened edge that gives us ready access to reproving barbs. But we’d gain back a good bit of our humanity. This seems like a trade-off worth making.

Emily Chamlee-Wright is the president of the Institute for Humane Studies, which supports university professors who explore ideas within the classical liberal tradition.