Silence Isn’t Violence—It’s An Act Of Maturity We Need More Of
A culture obsessed with appearances has forgotten the power of silence.
The idea that silence is synonymous with violence came barreling through mainstream consciousness with the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in 2020. The emotional plea was for us all—especially those “white and privileged”—to take to social media and declare our stance against systemic racism. The phrase implored (or shamed) those who had not publicly expressed solidarity with the movement, to do so—or else, hold the guilt of being complicit in violence against minority racial groups.
Amidst the intensity of the moment, I made what turned out to be a controversial statement on Facebook, writing:
Let us not forget that internet activism is not the only way to make a difference. Perhaps equally or more important is how we live our lives; what we do beyond the very limited confines of the performative virtual world. Are we living from a growing place of compassion, curiosity, courage, openness, vulnerability, and acceptance? Are we committed to inner growth alongside the individual steps we can take to build a more peaceful, loving world if that is the world we long for?
That the post went against the grain, I knew. But I did not expect what ensued in the comments. I was met with declarations that it’s vital we know what “work” our Facebook “friends” are doing, that I should preface my post with a declaration of my privilege, and that, actually, “silence is violence.” I was offered homework: to read an article that attempted to diagnose our society with “white silence.” Apparently, what was driving me and other white people to stay silent was “white fragility.” From that moment on, it wouldn't matter what I said back to my commenters. Anything aside from bowing down to the social justice mob would be evidence of my white fragility.
That was my introduction to the belief that silence is violence. Things cooled down some time after that, for both my social media and society. But after a brief period of hibernation, the slogan has resurfaced in light of the war between the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas, as thousands of innocent lives are caught in the crossfire. Again, we are told we must use our voices, specifically on social media, to show which side we stand on, and to ensure that our own hands are clean of the violence unfolding in the Middle East.
“Silence is violence” is a compelling, emotive phrase that paints an image of a simplistic dichotomy between morality and complicity. If we’re moral, we’ll say the right thing—and in the right places; and if we’re complicit in violence, it will be evident in our unwillingness to speak up on social media.
But does the story painted by this phrase hold true? Is it true that to be silent is to be complicit in the harmful actions of others? Does saying the right thing on social media make you a good person, free of moral wrongdoing?
The reality is that morality and complicity hold far more complexity than such a simple statement can reflect. The reality is that silence is not, in fact, synonymous with violence. Social media silence does not imply complicity. For starters, that “silence is violence” would have never even occurred to people a few decades ago. Nick Haslam, professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, coined the term “concept creep” to describe how many psychological concepts have gone through semantic shifts in recent years. Concepts such as abuse, trauma, mental disorder, and prejudice have dilated. He contends that “the expansion primarily reflects an ever-increasing sensitivity to harm, reflecting a liberal moral agenda.”
Changing, expanding, or manipulating our use of a word does not change the reality of a situation. Declaring that something is violence because an ideology says that it is does not make it so.
Furthermore, expressing a stance on social media is not equivalent to bringing justice or equality, nor healing to the world. The social media world is not the real world, and one’s statements in the former generally say little about what they will do in the latter. ”Speaking up” is not a stamp of doing good.
No matter how much the social web threatens to replace tangible, shared, earthly space and physical interactions, it cannot possibly hold room for all the conversations we need to have. The conversations that happen offline are much deeper, richer, and more nuanced than those we have in virtual spaces. However, these conversations happen with far fewer eyes to witness them, going undocumented by those demanding we “speak up.”
There are no social justice credits handed out to those who quietly donate money to a cause they care about. To those who privately contact their government representatives about issues close to their hearts. To those who are talking—showing care and concern—anywhere other than publicly online.
To reiterate a previous point, what we express on social media also doesn’t say anything about what sort of peace we bring to our families, our communities, or the world at large. Modern society has lost faith in the importance of how we actually live our lives: how we treat our parents, our children, our friends, our neighbors. How we spend our money. How much time and care we devote to the inner and crucial work of personal growth. Instead, we’ve amplified the value of superficial, performative measures of morality, such as posting black squares or sharing the “right” Instagram posts.
This is not to say that all social media actions are performative or superficial. Great passion, care, and devotion can ring through how we express ourselves in these spaces. However, what “silence is violence” pushes for is compelled speech. It does not advocate for sitting down at the table and having hard but fruitful conversations. It only wants speech that toes the line.
Our sense of what matters has become distorted as we increasingly prioritize the appearance of virtue over the substance of our character and actions. How we live our lives is not inconsequential, it’s everything. A society is only as loving and moral as its members. Thus, how we live—not what we say online—is the foundation of a just, fair, and compassionate world.
It’s also worth considering the assumptions that such a simplistic phrase makes about the change-making potential of silence. Behind the sentiment that “silence is violence” is an unspoken belief that speaking up amounts to making positive change—and that staying quiet does the opposite.
This is a false assumption given that while speech can be a force for good, for change, and for healing, it can also be inflammatory and fuel division. Likewise, silence holds both negative and positive potential. It can come from coldness, apathy, and detachment, or it can come from wisdom, care, and reflection. The latter is subtle and cannot be measured by those keeping tabs on our social media statements, but it’s a potent force. Someone who can hold wise, considered silence can be a bridge between opposites: a healer, a mender of gaps.
To understand silence and its nuance, we have to understand the reasons people choose to be silent—particularly on social media. This list is not exhaustive of the many reasons, but it is a start:
They don’t post (much or anything) on social media and aren’t about to start
They’re taking time to reflect, to sit with what’s happening in the world (and happening in themselves as a result)
They can’t find the right words to express what they think or feel
They’re overwhelmed, exhausted, or grieving
They prefer to communicate in the realm of the real world
They disagree with some of the views associated with ‘the movement’ and do not want to align with ‘the movement’ as a whole
They hold nuanced views and don’t know how (or don’t want) to express those publicly
They don’t want something they say to come back and haunt them
They don’t want to contribute to conflict, and they know that social media is an intolerant, volatile place
They’re confused, trying to sort out fact from fiction
They prefer to keep their views and opinions private
They’re focused on advocating for another important issue that means a lot to them
The last point on this list is worth diving into (perhaps they all are, but even a long-form essay has its limits). At the time of writing, while the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas are at war, ethnic cleansing is taking place in Sudan. Thousands of ethnic Armenians have been forced to flee their homes. Animals in factory farms are being treated with unconscionable cruelty, and rainforests and their inhabitants are being violently assaulted.
The point is this: a single individual cannot be held responsible for speaking up about every aggressive, horrific, heart-breaking event happening on this planet. Our nervous systems are not wired to hold that weight. For someone who would argue that silence is violence, I’d ask this: If I were to hand you a list of a thousand unjust actions taking place on this Earth right now, would you be able to advocate for all of them? Would your silence on any of them be evidence of your apathy or your complicity in violence?
Recently, the renowned Belgian-American psychotherapist Esther Perel took to Instagram to state, “We are not meant to process conflict and trauma in short bursts, in echo chambers, in black holes of collapsed nuance.”
If we aren’t able to process conflict and trauma in these environments, then how could we have a responsibility to share and discuss conflict-laden topics on social media, where we are siphoned into echo chambers and stripped of our capacity for seeing, thinking, feeling, and speaking with depth and nuance?
While most who use the phrase “silence is violence” are likely well-intentioned, it would benefit our society to step back from this collapsed view. To declare another’s silence as violence reinforces the “us versus them” mentality, which lies at the root of all wars and all conflicts.
This reprimand aims to shame us into conformity—to blindly follow the crowd. It attempts to strip us of our individual expression and wisdom. It denigrates the black sheep among us because it refuses to acknowledge the reality that alternate (including silent) ways of “showing up” can be just as or even more impactful.
In place of this collapsed view of effective change-making, might we show up with generosity towards our fellow human beings? With curiosity? With a willingness to ask questions and to listen? Might we assume that most of us only want the best for our co-inhabitants, and that our reasons for not speaking up on hot issues at hot times may actually be born of care, wisdom, and reflection?
Rather than fight with one another about who holds the most moral view and who expresses it right, what if we came together? What if we advocated for what we care about in ways that didn’t assume the worst of others, ways that embody the very care we want to see more of in the world?
What if we chose to do something really radical: end the aggressive ways we speak to and about one another, and aim to bridge the gaps in our own lives—using both speech and silence? After all, each has its rightful place.
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