Published in the Centre Daily Times, Dec 17, 2011
I spoke up a lot in my childhood. I was lucky to have parents who encouraged discussion, debate and questioning the status quo. They did not consider speaking up as a sign of disrespect, and we discussed everything from politics to traditions and hypocrisy to neighborhood issues.
But as an adult, I speak out less. I tell myself that this is a sign of maturity, of understanding that life is not black and white and of making choices of which battles to fight.
But often my silence reflects an unwillingness to expend the tremendous energy required to address conflicts and the other consequences of speaking up.
Proverbs regarding how and when to speak exist in all cultures. “Children speak only when spoken to” and “Empty vessels make the most noise,” send clear messages. Advice columns tell us how to network and advance careers and emphasize being a team player and getting along with others.
But what if the others are engaged in wrongdoing?
The enabling silence of witnesses to Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sexual abuse of children tells us that not speaking out is the immature option.
I am intrigued by the fact that two adults, one a janitor and the other a graduate assistant, did not call 911 upon witnessing a child being assaulted.
The graduate assistant told Joe Paterno, who at least reported the hearsay to his athletic director. But the janitor told his supervisor, who only informed him who he should report it to. The janitor never reported it and his supervisor took no further action.
Is this silence and inaction of ordinary folk, in the face of such horrendous crimes, surprising? Is it the only reaction we can expect from people who are less powerful than Paterno?
I have been consumed by these questions in the past month.
There is lesser outrage about the silence of these ordinary folk like janitors, supervisors and graduate assistants.
Is it because we collectively understand their silence, the limitations of their powers and the consequences of upsetting the hierarchy in our families, workplaces and institutions?
After all, in the real world, bosses have power over employees, teachers and coaches over students, parents over children, the rich over the poor, and so on. In the ABC show “What Would You Do?” John Quinones sets up ethical dilemmas and films people’s reactions to disturbing situations on camera. Interestingly, not every person speaks up or gets involved.
Do the instincts of self-preservation and fear of the unknown prompt them to mind their own business and stay silent?
However, silence speaks volumes — silence is acceptance and there are some things that are just not acceptable.
Ordinary folk must speak up. How can we encourage more of us to have the moral courage to do this?
Decreasing the negative consequences for speaking up would help us get lots of practice in standing up to wrongs — as children and as adults.
This is easier said than done, but we could try some small steps.
Have teachers give badges of honor to 5-year-olds who tattle. Tattletales do need courage and serve us better than silent enablers.
Commend those who are not team players because team players are useless when the team is doing wrong.
Encourage new hires and old hands who have contrary ideas to create invaluable change agents and whistleblowers.
Appreciate the person who sends a frank email, which appears rude, but contains kernels of truth. They will then continue to speak up.
Encourage the candid comments of children rather than silencing them with adverse consequences and lessons in politeness. Give them practice in speaking up.
These steps go against lessons of networking and of being tactful and diplomatic to “win friends and influence people.”
But they give us encouragement to speak up forcefully and effectively when the situation calls for it.
And this can help create an environment where we, the ordinary people, will readily perform acts of moral courage, like speaking up and dialing 911, even when it is only a stranger who is in trouble.