Years ago I started a series of posts based on quotes. I got distracted (Hild, work for three non-profits, a cratering economy). Now I feel like picking it up again.
Silence = Death – ACT UP
If you see something, say something. — Department of Homeland Security
Speaking out for me used to be a matter of survival. As child I was spat upon in the street1; in my early 20s I had my house set on fire—a poor attempt, thankfully—and my windows smashed; I was beaten and put in hospital; groups of men tried to batter down the door to rape me and my girlfriend; police threw me against walls, harassed me, manhandled me, and illegally detained me. Speaking out, getting my name on the radio and in the paper, was one way to stay alive.
Each degree of difference from Straight White Middle-Class Male is marked by a slight increase in the normal gravity many operate under. I’m a woman, a queer, and a cripple. Also an immigrant with no degree who lived for years in poverty. There have been times when for me that gravity feels crushing.
These day, though, my gravity feels manageable. I am older, legally and happily married, my family loves me. I have wonderful friends, the esteem of those in my profession, and a lovely house in a peaceful neighbourhood. I am not at physical or legal risk. As life got easier, speaking out gradually ceased to be a priority—for a while it came to seem disingenuous and even, occasionally, ungrateful. There were times, too, when it seemed easier to change hearts and minds when those around me believed I was Just Like Them.
But I’m not.
Nor am I careful by nature. Lately I’m finding it takes more energy to keep quiet than to speak out. Seeing something and then saying something can be inconvenient2 but, ah, fuck it, sometimes it feels good.
1 The first time, I was nine. I grew up Catholic. There were pockets of Yorkshire that remembered virulently anti-Catholic sentiment. (Four hundred years can mean nothing in Britain. Sigh.) I was on the street collecting money for a Catholic old-people’s home (that’s what we called it then) and a woman old enough to be grandmother shouted at me and spat right in my face. I was shocked to the core. Then I got cross…
2 When I posted last month about gender bias in book prizes I spent three solid weeks fielding media enquiries from all over the world. That seems to have died down a bit but it took a lot of effort to push the issue out far enough that it caught the current so I wouldn’t have to steer. I’ve done enough steering for a lifetime. As Dr McCoy might say, “Dammit, Jim, I’m a novelist, not an activist!”
4 thoughts on “Silence = death | Quotes, an occasional series #5”
Don’t stop speaking, Nicola. I remember our conversation back in 1997 at Clarion West, there at the end of the hall. Sensible, righteous anger that saw me through. Keep being one of the good ones.
If you see something, say something.
I understand the need to speak out, but if you’re going to use that quote as a starting point, please be aware of the full meaning behind it. At its worst, it’s a tool to reinforce the fear and oppression you’re fighting against.
Someone in the airport speaking Arabic or wearing a headscarf? If you see something, say something. What about a black man driving a nice car in a white neighborhood? If you see something, say something. And how about that unmarried leader in your scout troop, whose son graduated years ago? If you see something, say something.
The words that follow that slogan tell you what it’s really about: report suspicious activity to your local law enforcement agency. I appreciate the desire to avoid getting blown up as much as anyone, and I don’t doubt that the intent behind the billboards is almost entirely benign, but the message is still clear. The world is a dangerous place. There are people out to hurt you and your children around every corner. Be afraid.
Of course we need to go to the police when we know of a real danger. Most people, especially those with minimal degrees of difference from Straight White Middle-Class Male, already do that. Reminding us about terrorism at every opportunity doesn’t help. And it’s certainly not going to improve relations between the police and the communities with whom relations are not so good.
The real effect of this slogan is to make every one of us a little more fearful, a little more distrustful. To look at everyone else with suspicion, especially if that person is different. To be afraid of the Other.
So yes. If you see something, say something. Speak out. Appropriate the words that are meant to push you out of polite society and use them to shove your way back in.
Words can persuade, but only if people are ready to be persuaded. Still, is something makes me mad enough, I feel compelled to speak out. I don’t know how many people I have persuaded, but I think it has been very few.
Rob, thank you.
Eric, I’m perfectly aware of the origins of the quote and some of its effects.
Barbara, we never know which of our words work, or when.
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