October 15, 2018

KANKANHALLI | Is Silence Complacency?

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The modern political landscape needs no introduction. Domestically and internationally, the gaffes and wrongdoings of those in power echo with dramatic ricochet. As civilians, most of us thankfully equipped with moral compasses and appetites for justice, we respond and we participate. We compete for our myriad viewpoints to be heard in a sea of stubborn politicians, and understandably so: our voices are our primary — and sometimes only — vehicles with which to elicit change.

Yet, this collective context — relying on volume alone to capture the attention officeholders — creates an unhealthy rift. The implicit narrative, among millennials especially, has evolved to claim that one is either active or he is useless and selfish. Moreover, utilizing a platform — say, an opinion column — to further non-sociopolitical causes is inconsiderate and insolent. There is no room for passivity in this climate of unrest; there is no sympathy for the silent.

We are encouraged to liken speaking our minds to a duty or an obligation paired with occupying the first world. To some extent, this is valid. The same sort of logic exists behind taxing the rich — if you have more, then you give more. If you are fortunate enough to have a voice, then you share the voice. However, this analogy crumbles as we consider the plethora of factors that discourage assertive expression.

For some, it’s a matter of confidence. The well-educated community — the typical audience for political commentary — places a radically higher emphasis on fact as opposed to feeling. Consequently, despite the passionate reactions that crimes against humanity invoke in most civilians, many avoid voicing them for fear of a disproportionate reliance on empathy and social capital rather than on hard statistics or definitive solutions. Then, those who refrain from entering discourse are unfairly dubbed oblivious and apathetic.

Is silence complacency? Not always. Frequently, those who are silent are criticized for disinvolvement, whereas those who are clamorous with their social activism are rarely challenged about the authenticity of their displays. Equating silence to lack of interest, thought or stimulation ostracizes a majority of the world: those without platforms or voices, and those without the academic backing to boldly lay claim to opinions. In our positions of privilege within a formal system of education, uninhibited access to news and research, and various other physical and institutional protections, we are eager and able to be loud and angry. And, without a doubt, there are scores and scores of atrocities transpiring all over the globe, each one of them fully worthy of our rage, but not all of them best addressed through uproar.

The startlingly low voter turnout in America can be understood through the lens of silence in an increasingly vocal society. A study published by the Pew Research Center reveals that nearly half of U.S. voting-age population neglected to cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. Rather than hastening to reprimand these non-voters, we must pause to deliberate on whether the reluctance to vote may be modeled as a function of unawareness or lack of exposure. In fact, urging non-voters to prematurely align themselves with candidates or parties simply for the sake of contribution could backfire terribly. Instead, campaigning to raise awareness and cultivating habits of informed decision-making are much more integrative and sustainable movements toward resolution.

Another argument against the legitimacy of silence is rooted in the number of digital stages that afford opinion-sharing in comfortable environments. Facebook and Twitter, for instance, allow for users to craft their audiences, customize their ideas, and package and deliver them in the most convenient, diplomatic ways. Still, guilting people into engaging in political discourse on these seemingly safe platforms if they are truly unready is a violation of individual choice and an invitation for hostility, potentially sparking personal attacks and aggressive debate. We are entitled to seal our thoughts just as we are entitled to disseminate them.

Sometimes, silence is patience, resilience and curiosity. For many of us, the modern political landscape may not need introduction. We may know the names and faces of key officials, their family trees, their legislative stances, their civic triumphs and failures. We may even know enough to prescribe what’s best or predict what’s next. But, many among us are still listening and learning. Respecting the silence that accompanies a period of development is both a basic courtesy as well as a reminder to value the diversity in quieter, less represented perspectives.

Priya Kankanhalli is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Matters of Fact runs every other Tuesday this semester. She can be reached at pkankanhalli@cornellsun.com.