As someone with a public platform I’ve been called upon numerous times to speak out on any number of specific issues or controversies. I don’t mind at all the friendly inquires “What do you think?” or the private requests “I really think you should weigh in.” I recognize that some people are crying out for their voice to be heard. I sympathize with people who feel isolated, alone, hurt, or confused. I understand that emotions behind a “Say something right now, or else!” appeal. What’s frustrating is when the “or else” really means “or we’ll know you don’t care,” “or we’ll know you disagree with us,” “or we’ll know you agree with them,” “or we’ll know you are indifferent to some horrible thing.”
I see it often in politics and in the blogosphere: Person A calls on Person B (or Persons C, D, and E) to make a public comment about issue X, and if they refuse to say something right now, Person A will assume that Person B (and likely Persons C, D, and E as well) don’t care about X and believe something as heinous at Y and Z. You follow me?
Obviously, there are times when we must speak out on an issue publicly. We may have particular expertise on a matter, or it may affect people we are responsible for, or our conscience may be provoked in a powerful way. I’m not suggesting public response is wrong. Not at all. Silence is not always golden. But the “say something, or else!” form of public shaming is frequently manipulative and the cries are sometimes best ignored.
There are many reasons why Person B may not make the public statement you want him (or them) to make.
1. He (or they) may not know what you are talking about. Before you get upset with someone for not commenting on the latest blog blowup, consider the possibility that the person you want to speak out may not follow your favorite blog or track with every controversy. Just because someone is a public person and uses social media doesn’t mean he has a responsibility to keep up on all the latest dish.
2. He may not be knowledgeable on the subject you want to be addressed. You may be convinced it’s cowardice or indifference that keeps someone silent, but maybe it’s wisdom. What if someone writes a post about, say, Martin Luther’s anti-semitism. It doesn’t matter for this example whether the post is saying Luther wasn’t that bad or that he was worse than we think. The point is people are in an uproar about this post and the online pressure is to say something lest you show yourself to be a hater of Luther or a hater of the Jews or whatever. You may weigh in, especially if you have some expertise in Luther. But maybe you are smart enough to know you aren’t smart enough to figure out this historical controversy in your spare time. Maybe it is academic humility that keeps you on the sidelines, not indifference or cowardice.
3. The person or persons you want to speak up may be doing their part behind the scenes. Or they may know more about a situation than is presented in public reports. Or maybe they figure there isn’t anything new, edifying, or clarifying that can be said. I’m a blogger, a preacher, a writer, and someone with lots of opinions, convictions, and ideas. I don’t find it hard to jump in with a thought on most issues. But I’ve learned over the years my first instinct to say something is not always best. And I’ve learned that making assumptions about those who stay on the sidelines is not good either. There are too many things I don’t know to speak on everything, and too many things I don’t know to assume the worst about those who don’t chime in on everything that’s important to me. Let’s be careful not to shame people for not saying what we want them to say precisely when we want them to say it.