My Twitter profile currently includes the phrase “silence is violence.” People ask me about this occasionally: what does it mean? I don’t know where I picked up this phrase, and maybe it has a different meaning for me than for others, but what I mean by it is that if I’m a bystander who witnesses something I disagree with, I’m actively supporting the behavior to which I object.
A lot of this is very specific to my situation in life: I’m a white man, among other things. Whiteness and maleness are two of the most dominant power demographics, at least in the United States. As a white man, therefore, I have a lot of privileges that others don’t necessarily have. What feels “neutral” and “passive” to me can really be far from that in others’ experiences. It’s like swimming in a swift, powerful river: if I’m “passive” I can simply float yet be carried rapidly along.
Imagine I’m present when someone who occupies the same power spaces as I, does something objectionable. For example, another man says something about a woman. Perhaps the man says, “I just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
What do I do?
If I am silent, I’m standing in solidarity with this man. He’s performed this behavior, and now he’s watching to see how I react. He’s looking to see: do I object? Do I remain silent? Do I celebrate his behavior?
If I don’t object, I’m floating in the swift, powerful river of male supremacy. If I don’t object, I’m his ally.
It doesn’t take much to let him know that I’m not his ally. All I have to do is say something small, like “I’m not okay with that,” or “not cool,” or perhaps even shake my head and give him a disapproving look. If I do that, everyone who sees it know that I’m not his ally, I’m hers.
But silence? Silence means I’m his ally. It means I’m giving my endorsement and approval. Silence is violence.