The Dangers of Silence

Latrisha Chattin was the scheduled speaker at semi-programmed meeting for worship on November 6, 2016. Dr. Chattin is the former head of the Friends School of Minnesota.

It may come as a surprise to absolutely no one that I attended a Quaker school. But it was in my Quaker school that I learned and lived the Quaker testimonies, learned to listen and discern, disagree and respect differences, studied the Bible, and worshiped in silence. Of course I didn’t truly appreciate the silence until I was no longer a student. In fact, it was Mother’s Day 2013, that I awakened – resolved to stay inside away from the good meaning greetings of “Happy Mother’s Day” (a story for another day) – and turned on the news. After just 10 minutes I could no longer stomach what I was seeing or hearing. There was violence everywhere. If you recall, it was at that time that hundreds of girls had been abducted by Boko Haram to be forced into underage marriage and Pro-Russian and Kiev forces were fighting for control of parts of the Ukraine … and this was just the world news. It felt like everything and everyone was so noisy and aggressive. I needed a place to be together with folks in silence. I recalled feeling that way in Quaker meeting. I quickly put on my clothes, googled my nearest meetinghouse, and drove the mile to meeting where I slid into the latecomers bench, careful not to disturb others who were already settled, just as the doors were closing. Minutes in I knew I had made the right decision. People began speaking out from the silence about the pain and anger they were feeling. At the rise of meeting the conversations continued at community lunch and talk turned into action, just like I knew it would because Quakers are activists. They are the voices for the voiceless.

Fast-forward three and a half years and not much has changed. The constant denigration and hatred spewing from this election cycle alone makes my head hurt daily. It has dug up some not so deeply buried sentiments of misogyny, racism, and xenophobia that we had wanted to believe we were over. And yet, people still don’t want to talk about it – well, at least not in any meaningful way. We’ve become complacent in our silence. Too afraid to offend, to get involved, to risk something. But there is danger in being silent.

In his Ted Talk entitled “The Danger of Silence” teacher Clint Smith said:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a 1968 speech where he reflects upon the Civil Rights Movement, states, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

As a teacher, I’ve internalized this message. Every day, all around us, we see the consequences of silence manifest themselves in the form of discrimination, violence, genocide and war. In the classroom, I challenge my students to explore the silences in their own lives through poetry. We work together to fill those spaces, to recognize them, to name them, to understand that they don’t have to be sources of shame. In an effort to create a culture within my classroom where students feel safe sharing the intimacies of their own silences, I have four core principles posted on the board that sits in the front of my class, which every student signs at the beginning of the year: read critically, write consciously, speak clearly, tell your truth.
And I find myself thinking a lot about that last point, tell your truth. And I realized that if I was going to ask my students to speak up, I was going to have to tell my truth and be honest with them about the times where I failed to do so.

So I tell them that growing up, as a kid in a Catholic family in New Orleans, during Lent I was always taught that the most meaningful thing one could do was to give something up, sacrifice something you typically indulge in to prove to God you understand his sanctity. I’ve given up soda, McDonald’s, French fries, French kisses, and everything in between. But one year, I gave up speaking. I figured the most valuable thing I could sacrifice was my own voice, but it was like I hadn’t realized that I had given that up a long time ago. I spent so much of my life telling people the things they wanted to hear instead of the things they needed to, told myself I wasn’t meant to be anyone’s conscience because I still had to figure out being my own, so sometimes I just wouldn’t say anything, appeasing ignorance with my silence,unaware that validation doesn’t need words to endorse its existence. When Christian was beat up for being gay, I put my hands in my pocket and walked with my head down as if I didn’t even notice. I couldn’t use my locker for weeks because the bolt on the lock reminded me of the one I had put on my lips when the homeless man on the corner looked at me with eyes up merely searching for an affirmation that he was worth seeing. I was more concerned with touching the screen on my Apple than actually feeding him one. When the woman at the fundraising gala said “I’m so proud of you. It must be so hard teaching those poor, unintelligent kids,” I bit my lip, because apparently we needed her money more than my students needed their dignity.

We spend so much time listening to the things people are saying that we rarely pay attention to the things they don’t. Silence is the residue of fear. It is feeling your flaws gut-wrench guillotine your tongue. It is the air retreating from your chest because it doesn’t feel safe in your lungs. Silence is Rwandan genocide. Silence is Katrina. It is what you hear when there aren’t enough body bags left. It is the sound after the noose is already tied. It is charring. It is chains. It is privilege. It is pain. There is no time to pick your battles when your battles have already picked you.

I will not let silence wrap itself around my indecision. I will tell Christian that he is a lion, a sanctuary of bravery and brilliance. I will ask that homeless man what his name is and how his day was, because sometimes all people want to be is human. I will tell that woman that my students can talk about transcendentalism like their last name was Thoreau, and just because you watched one episode of “The Wire” doesn’t mean you know anything about my kids. So this year, instead of giving something up, I will live everyday as if there were a microphone tucked under my tongue, a stage on the underside of my inhibition. Because who has to have a soapbox when all you’ve ever needed is your voice?”

Today, Clint Smith’s words ring in my ears. We are almost through one of the most trying years of my life. If we, as Friends, are to live lives of integrity we must be willing to risk something of ourselves for others. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.” Proverbs 31:8-9 states, Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. Friends, we must act as we feel compelled or else we become complicit in the very actions of those we oppose.

Query: Who do you stand for/with? How will you use your privilege? What will you risk? For whom will you use your voice?

Darkness and Light

Mary Jean Port was the scheduled speaker at semi-programmed meeting for worship on October 23, 2016. Most late afternoons in the fall I think, “Oh, my, it is getting dark so early.” I have to laugh that I am surprised. … Continue reading →