Monday, March 22, 2021

Silence can be more than just complicity

Tomb figure, Han dynasty (Field Museum)

     "Silence is complicity," the president said Friday, in the aftermath of eight people, six of them Asian American women, being murdered in Atlanta.
     Well, I thought, guess I know what I’m going to write about for Monday. Don’t want to be complicit in any murders.
     Although I don’t agree with Joe Biden.
     Silence can be many other things. For instance, I jammed something about the murders into Friday’s column about getting vaccinated because I didn’t want to be accused of ignoring them. But the reference clashed with the jokey tone of the column, and my editor didn’t like it. So I took it out. In that case, silence was tact.
     One murder is terrible. Eight murders are extra terrible. Eight murders stemming from racial animus or dehumanizing sexism or religious repression or heck, all three—journalists are not supposed to announce the culprit of a crime, never mind decide upon his motive—with a few psychoses and way-too-lax gun laws tossed in, are super extra terrible. Do you really need me to tell you that? I hope not; I try not to traffic in the obvious. When Kamala Harris said Friday, “Racism is real,” who is her audience? Because those listening to her tend to already be all-too aware of the pervasive reality of racism. And those who need to hear it sure aren’t taking their cues from the vice president.
     The most important voices over the past few days have been Asian Americans, themselves, talking about the hostility they’ve coped with. That has to be news to a lot of white Americans. But those sharing their stories don’t need me standing over their shoulder, nodding. “What she said!” Silence can be deference.
     I’ve been writing about mass shootings since 1988, when Laurie Dann shot up a classroom at Hubbard Woods Elementary in Winnetka, and I’ve always hated, hated, hated doing so. Such stories can be exploitive, particularly in the mad rush to grill survivors and declare motives. Puff away the pieties and vows for change, and you’ve often got morbid fascination putting on airs. Plus an opportunistic dipping of your fingers into real people’s blood to finger draw your favorite conclusions. If I were going to use Atlanta as an occasion for self-expression, I’d do a mural about mind-stunting, body-shaming fundamentalist misogyny and repression. Where’s the rally denouncing that? But then, that’s me. So silence can be humility.
     Statistics show Donald Trump’s cruel slurs and his irresponsibly blaming COVID-19 on China increased hate crimes against Asian Americans. That was true last week and last month and last year, even if the Atlanta shooter — I’m not using his name — is so crazy he didn’t even notice his victims were Asian. An example isn’t proof, even of something you know to be true.
     People are trained to hate, and it’s a diminishment of the Asian American journey in this country to even mention Donald Trump, which is basically the past five minutes of a gantlet of abuse we can trace back to the United States sending Admiral Perry prying open Japan at gunpoint, the West’s century-long subjugation of China, the Opium War, building the railroads, the first don’t-think-about-setting-foot-here racial laws, World War II internment camps, World War II propaganda, Korean War propaganda, Vietnam War propaganda, not to mention blasting our geopolitical paranoia for about a dozen years over that devastated small country. There’s more, but that’s a start. Silence can be a recognition of the complexity of an issue.
     The truth is, we all suffer from bias, both as perpetrators and victims, in various times and various places. I tend to keep quiet at these moments, because what I have to say — bigotry isn’t going away because you have a rally, no matter how good you feel afterward — well, I read the room, and can tell it won’t be appreciated. Silence can be self-protective.
     The trouble with demanding that people weigh in on a matter is that it runs into the tendency to condemn anybody who phrases something in a slightly different way, or betrays a sentiment that isn't as highly polished as theirs, or is a little behind the times, or departs from the most simplistic slogan. I'm all behind #StopAsianHate; I just don't feel inclined to chant it, and don't see the utility of flooding Twitter with it. If you do, well, that's great. But I'm not saying your failure to do so makes you an accomplice in any crime.
       It comes down to this: Are we working to be a better society by learning and growing together? Or by brutalizing those who fail to bark the right virtue-signaling slogan on cue along with everybody else? If the president is going to demand that we all speak out about racism, it raises the question of who will be speaking, what will be said, and whether anybody is listening.


  1. From a mushy center/left liberal. Sympathize with all the speeches/writings/causes that we lefties embrace. Gotta be honest though. After awhile, especially if you're older, you might think "I'm sick of all this ----!" Your life, time is a factor here. Especially after the last 4 years or so. The hollowness of it all. The trashing of our traditions, uglyspeak blah blah. Met by deafening silence/approval. I think it is o.k. to stay in one's one lane. Focus on what you think matters now. No complicity.One did their best in the game.

  2. Agree with what you wrote.

    But a special thanks to using gantlet correctly, instead the constant misuse of gauntlet!

  3. Maybe I'm just getting older and crankier, or using my age to justify my crankiness, but if someone says or acts stupidly, I can't leave their bigotry unchallenged. Not that I fear being seen as complicit, just too damn tired of watching shit like that.

  4. This is an excellent column.

  5. One definitely gets crankier as one grows older. This old geezer is more angry now than he was in his twenties.But when do you finally get tired of the whizzing contests, and begin to feel like you're whizzing into the wind? All that happens then is that you end up tired, wet, smelly, and finally out of whiz.

    I love my country, but I'd leave it tomorrow if I could. I'm tired of the circus. Seen too many elephants. Had enough of the lyin', the Tiger, and those who bear arms. See you later, Congress...this way to the egress.

    My reality is going to be just sitting here watching the wheels gp round and round. More of the same...and worse. Not going anywhere, anytime soon, unless it's to hell. Of course I hate the haters. But I don't feel like marching anymore.

  6. Some things should go without saying. That’s my wishful thinking. Do I really need to announce that I don’t think it’s good to murder eight people? It’s a sad world where that has to be reaffirmed again and again.

  7. This is a fine, nuanced post, with a lot to consider.

    "The most important voices over the past few days have been Asian Americans, themselves, talking about the hostility they’ve coped with. That has to be news to a lot of white Americans. But those sharing their stories don’t need me standing over their shoulder, nodding. 'What she said!'"

    Regardless of whether racism was the shooter's prime motivation, a secondary one, or even if it wasn't actually a notable factor in his pathology, Americans being made more aware of the hostility experienced by different minority groups is a good thing.

    But their voices are pretty easily overlooked if they're not presented in some format that will be noticed by the majority. This is the first I've heard of the hashtag #StopAsianHate, but if that is the vehicle through which some are being informed, it seems to me like it has some value.

    Of course, we don't all need to chime in. But to some extent, silence in the face of racism *is* complicity. Various ethnic slurs would probably still be much more commonplace in this culture if they were met only with silence. If voices of the oppressed in this society are not somehow amplified, they will go unheard by many. Silence doesn't provide much amplification.

  8. (Adding my two cents here may be contradictory given the subject matter.) I believe it’s human nature to not remain silent, whatever the circumstances. It takes extreme discipline and thoughtfulness to do so. As our blog host has exquisitely expressed.

  9. A very thoughtful piece, although it should be recognized that the problem it addresses is more one for Neil than the rest of us. As a highly public commentator there is an expectation that he address such tragedies. For most of us nobody cares. That he finds aspects of that expectation distasteful is to his credit.

    On the subject of antialien bias I suppose I was inoculated at an early age, during WW 2, when my big sister arrived home from the U. of Wisconsin for Christmas break with two Japanese girls, classmates, in tow. My brother was, at the time serving in the Pacific on the USS Enterprise. My mother welcomed them, introduced them to friend and neighbors, and they became lifelong family friends. Oscar Hammerstein put it nicely in the song from "South Pacific."

    "You've got to be taught before it's too late,
    Before you are six or seven or eight,
    To hate all the people your relatives hate.
    You've got to be carefully taught."


    1. My father was an early adapter. We owned LPs, and a TV set, by 1950. At three and four, I was sitting in my little yellow rocker and singing along to that same song. The lyrics that immediately precede your example are more timely right now than at almost any period since World War II.

      "You've got to be taught to be afraid,
      Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
      And people whose skin is a different shade.
      You've got to be carefully taught."

      That verse has been stuck in my head for days now.

  10. Neil addressed the problem early on in this column. Too many listen only to what they want to hear. The advent of social media has given people choices of which bias they want to digest.
    No more go to news source anymore. Unity is a pipe dream.


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